A Fort of Nine Towers

The Book of the Week is “A Fort of Nine Towers, An Afghan Family Story” by Qais Akbar Omar, published in 2013.

As is well known, the Russians marched into Afghanistan in 1979. The resistance fighters were called the Mujahedin, the Holy Warriors. The Russians had advanced aerial bombs, while the Warriors had old hunting-guns. The Russians left in 1989, but continued to financially support the government until spring 1992; galloping inflation ensued.

The author and his growing family lived in Kabul, of which the Mujahedin then took control. Omar’s father and grandfather ran a lucrative Oriental carpet business. They lived in a multi-generational household, with large families of uncles, aunts and cousins.

At the time Omar began to experience the hardships of war, he was about eight years old. His elementary school stopped teaching the basics of evolution, and began to teach creationism instead. There was no more fear of stray bullets in the streets, but there was a food shortage. The following year, tribal infighting plagued the Mujahedin; rockets fired from above by the different tribes– all Muslim– started to kill people.

Omar’s grandfather’s resistance to change, anger at having his livelihood, property and material possessions stolen, and love of his homeland were largely responsible for his family’s precarious situation, and their traumatic experiences in the coming decades. He insisted the family stay in Afghanistan– to try to protect what they had. He was stripped of the fruits of his life’s work, anyway. Most of their community fled. Omar’s family obeyed the law of Islam by which the females and children obeyed the oldest male relatives.

As the year 1993 progressed and the violence worsened, schools closed and no one went outside for fear of getting hit by sniper bullets, or a rocket-propelled grenade or other weaponry.

In late spring, the declaration of a cease-fire prompted Omar’s father to temporarily evacuate the family from their home in a northwesterly direction over a mountainside to a more peaceful village. They were the only people in their area who had a car.

About four miles away, the closest family members who could fit in the car, were driven to and stayed at the quiet estate of the author’s father’s fabulously wealthy business partner. Until the war came to that neighborhood.

The author, as the oldest son in his immediate family, on a few occasions in the next few years, was invited to accompany his grandfather or his father in a return to their old property to see how it was doing, and perhaps to dig up the gold they had buried in the garden there before they left. Those were harrowing, emotionally and physically hurtful episodes with gruesome scenes and near-death experiences.

For, the war had turned illiterate young Muslim men into sociopathic sadists with weaponry. The hatred among different tribes knew no bounds. On the streets, ragged, begging children were used as decoys for hidden robbers who might also commit rape if passersby stopped to help.

“Panjshiris and Hazaras were supposed to stop launching the rockets at each other that had come from the Americans to be used by the Mujahedin against the Russians. But the Russians were defeated and long gone.”

In September 1996, a new tribe, the Taliban– supplied with weapons by Pakistan– was wreaking havoc in Kabul. Omar’s grandfather described them thusly: “They capture a village and torture people and club them to death, then afterwards ask the young boys to do the same to their parents. They tell the young boys that this will make a man of them.”

The Taliban held public executions of thieves, prostitutes, murderers and gays. They enforced their own draconian version of observance of Islam. After a while, though, people at least knew what to expect. The trains ran on time.

Read the book to learn how the author and his family survived in this extremely suspenseful, emotionally-charged cautionary tale whose moral is this: early evacuation of a region with a history of civil war, whose violence is flaring up again, is advisable.

In My Time – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “In My Time” by Dick Cheney with Liz Cheney, published in 2011.

Born in January 1941 in Lincoln, Nebraska, Cheney and his family moved to Wyoming when he was twelve. He learned fishing at a young age. In high school: he was co-captain of the football team, was senior class president, and met his future wife.

Cheney got a scholarship (work/study program) to Yale. “… I continued to accumulate bad grades and disciplinary notices. In the spring of 1962, Yale and I finally parted ways.”

Cheney claimed that by 1967, he had aged out of the Vietnam draft through obtaining deferments for being a student and father. He got into politics, and was elected as a Republican from Wyoming, to the U.S. House of Representatives for six terms, beginning in 1978.

Interesting factoid (apropos of the way the U.S. government can behave badly): “The tobacco companies supplied free cartons of cigarettes to the Nixon and Ford White Houses…”

In October 1995, Cheney became CEO, as the previous one retired– of the international monster-sized oil-services / construction / military contracting company, Halliburton. He therefore moved to Texas. He rambled on a few pages about his quail-hunting there, and global fly-fishing trips. He explained how his February 2006 hunting accident happened.

Karl Rove opposed naming Cheney as George W. Bush’s running mate. According to Cheney, Bush was the only one who was desperate to have Cheney be his vice president. It took months of discussions before Cheney reluctantly agreed.

Even then, the two candidates were both from Texas, which meant the electoral college could vote for only one of them. Cheney had to hurry up and register in Wyoming before the deadline, to exploit the loophole in election law that allowed him to run from a different state. To be fair, in late July 2000, when Cheney’s candidacy was announced, “… the Democrats were waiting in the wings, ready to attack.”

Cheney asked Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan about the extent of 9/11’s economic impact on the United States, just after the attacks. Greenspan couldn’t say, because the “million equation model” (factors too numerous to account for) applied to such an event.

If that was the case, then the economic conditions of one president’s administration CANNOT be compared– apples to apples– to any other’s, no matter how indicators or numbers are quantified or adjusted. Each one faces challenges or advantages unique to his administration– as well as increasing globalization– as time goes on.

However, the economy’s tanking under Bush’s administration, was hardly due to 9/11. In October 2008, Bush signed a $700 billion bailout plan for failing financial institutions, the largest in United States history. In the fourth quarter of 2008, the economy contracted 8.4%. In sum, Obama inherited a national deficit of $6.369 trillion from his (blankety-blank) predecessor, thanks to tax cuts, mad military spending and a hog-wild mortgage crisis– the one that required that bailout– among other factors.

Bill Clinton happened to get reelected at the dawn of a once-a-century technological innovation that lifted all boats. It’s impossible to say how much his actions directly contributed to that.

So the line– uttered emphatically during any particular president’s administration (especially at odd times; i.e., whenever there’s a news lull)– “The economy is booming with president A, but in the same time period it sucked with president B!!” is meaningless. Sadly, this reckless kind of propaganda that targets the ignorant, works.

Anyway, roughly the last third of Cheney’s narrative consisted of infuriating, depressing and sickening myth-making, and credit-grabbing of feats that were arguably dubious distinctions. Excuse the cliche, but he rewrote history.

For one thing, Cheney was rather vague on the time frame in which he created a charitable trust to contain the after-tax profits of the stock options he still had yet to redeem with the aforementioned Halliburton; this, instead of putting his assets in a blind trust so as to reduce conflicts of interest upon becoming a (sorry excuse for a) public servant who was involved in numerous, highly suspicious circumstances. Curiously, one of the trust charities, Capital Partners for Education, has yet to be rated as of this writing by Charity Navigator, though it was founded in 1993.

The reader wonders whether Cheney would have acted completely unethically had there not been a firestorm from the media that followed his every move from the get-go. He is one of those people who, unless he gets caught, having a crack public relations team, will keep doing what he will.

Cheney wrote that Bush conferred with him in making major administration decisions. If true, Obama got elected due to the outrageous nature of the acts ordered by Cheney as much as by Bush, that sullied the Republican party’s reputation: Unethical opportunism. Unconscionable greed. Unmitigated hubris.

Cheney and Bush favored money over human lives by starting two needless wars launched on false pretenses in order to profit in many ways. ZERO of the 9/11 terrorists were from Afghanistan. ZERO of the the 9/11 terrorists were from Iraq. Yet retaliation was directed at only those two countries for harboring terrorists. The United States can’t be the world’s police officer. Clearly, it’s expensive and results in needless deaths and damage to America’s reputation.

Nevertheless, read the book to learn of Cheney’s version of events.

Where the Wind Leads/The Fox Hunt

The Books of the Week are “Where the Wind Leads, A Memoir” by Vinh Chung With Tim Downs, published in 2014; “The Fox Hunt, A Refugee’s Memoir of Coming to America” by Mohammed Al Samawi, published in 2018.

Both authors told suspenseful, extremely extreme, long, complicated refugee horror stories, in which they had great good luck on several occasions, and in which certain people took tremendous risks by providing the authors with invaluable assistance that saved their lives.

Born in South Vietnam in December 1975, the author of the former book helpfully, briefly described his homeland’s history three decades before his birth.

The author’s family was Chinese– neither enemies nor friends of the French, Viet Minh, or Khmer Rouge. However, in the 1940’s, the author’s father’s family’s house in the Mekong Delta had been burned to the ground twice, anyway. There was a higher risk of a Viet Minh invasion in the French territory farther north, where the family moved.

As is well known, in the mid-1950’s the French were militarily defeated by the Viet Minh– Communists– and kicked out of their colony Indochina in Southeast Asia. Thereafter, Vietnam was split into north and south. Different ethnic groups migrated toward the side where they numbered in the majority: Communists, north; Catholics and Buddhists, south.

The Khmer Rouge, comprised of Cambodians, continued to ally with the French for decades. By the late 1950’s, the author’s father had become a draft dodger, fleeing to Cambodia to avoid having to fight against the Viet Minh. In 1960, Ho Chi Minh’s militia, the National Liberation Front, was attempting to reunite North and South Vietnam. The Viet Minh was renamed Viet Cong by the United States.

Over decades, the author’s maternal grandmother began a rice-processing business that flourished. By the mid-1970’s, it had a couple of mills, a fleet of trucks, warehouses, etc. It actually benefited from America’s Vietnam War.

The family matriarch hired a matchmaker to marry off her son (the author’s father), born in 1937. He was still sowing his wild oats in his late twenties. Traditionally, both prospects’ families went on a date with the prospects. Then they saw a fortune teller.

The author’s mother was the daughter of a Chinese servant girl of a wealthy household. When she moved to her husband’s house, she had to shop daily for the fast-growing multi-generational household, because they didn’t have a refrigerator. But, since she was expected to become a baby-maker in addition to all of her other responsibilities– she was permitted to hire a teenage nanny with every additional child.

The author’s birth made five. Three more were quickly added, while the author’s father’s mistress had four. The two major philosophies of the family’s culture were filial piety and ancestor worship. Living in the South, their religion combined aspects of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. That changed when the Viet Cong attacked the Mekong Delta. The author’s family’s life was disrupted forever, as their business and real and personal property were stolen.

Due to the Vietnam government’s war against the Chinese that started in February 1979, the ever-growing Chung family became “boat people” in June. Read the book to learn of the family’s ordeal, adjustment to a brand new life, and the author’s explanation for what gave rise to his own extraordinary achievements.

Born in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen in 1986, the author of the latter book helpfully, briefly described the recent history of his homeland.

In 1987, a Sunni-Muslim group named the Muslim Brotherhood formed another group, Hamas. They were supported by Saudi Arabia, southern Yemen, Iraq and another group that formed later, Al Qaeda. Their enemies were Shia Muslims, who are the majority in Iran and northern Yemen.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, the author’s Shia-Muslim family lived in a peaceful neighborhood in Sana’a in northern Yemen, where everyone got along fine. He had two older and two younger siblings. His parents were trained as medical doctors; his prominent father worked for a military hospital.

Al Samawi’s parents believed in education, but were extremely devout Muslims. So his parents were thrilled when, as an adolescent, he donated all his lunch money to the Muslim Brotherhood when the group (who were pushing pan-Arabism at the time) visited his private, well-funded grammar school.

However, the teachers preached nonstop hatred against Jews and Christians. The Quran was their authority on that. Besides, they said Hitler was a hero for killing Jews, and the Jews’ books were “dirty, amoral, sinful, impure, demonic.”

In 2000, TV propaganda in Yemen claimed that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Israel was ordering the killing of innocent Palestinians, such as a young boy (who became a poster boy to incite Yemen), for no reason. The haters ignited in most Yemenis additional hatred against the Jews and Israel’s backers, such as the United States.

Eight years later, the author thought he was falling in love at university. But his filial piety put the kibosh on that. His mother did a background check on his prospective girlfriend, and found she wasn’t good enough for her son, and given their situations, she was probably a gold digger. His father also pressured him to end the budding relationship, by offering him a car and a job if his parents could fulfill the traditional Muslim route of choosing a bride for him. He caved in to their browbeating.

However, the next chapter in the author’s life proved to be most educational. He met an inspirational British instructor at his English-language school. Surprisingly, the author’s parents were allowing their son to study English. Al Samawi and his teacher exchanged gifts (the Quran and the Bible, respectively) to try to proselytize the other one. Each dogmatically believed that his own religion was the only right one to practice, else they would go to hell upon their deaths. Then a funny thing happened.

The teacher horrified Al Samawi by telling him he’d been hoodwinked– Al Samawi had unknowingly been reading the (Jewish!) Old Testament, having started at the beginning of the book. The stories’ morals and precepts were largely similar to those in the Quran(!)

In the next several years, Al Samawi became sufficiently open-minded to try to clear up his own confusion between what he’d been taught by his parents and Yemen’s culture, and what he was learning on Facebook and from his jobs at cross-cultural peacemaking organizations and international aid organizations.

From the start of Yemen’s religious civil war in 2015, Al Samawi found himself in a life-threatening, harrowing situation for several months. In one particular instance, he wrote, “Thirty minutes later, I jumped in the back of the black sedan. I didn’t call my mom. I didn’t say goodbye. I didn’t pay the hotel.”

Read the book to learn the details of how Al Samawi’s friends in high places went to extraordinary lengths to change his fate, through thrilling plot twists and turns.

No Room For Small Dreams / Rabin / My Country, My Life (Very Long Post)

The First Book of the Week is “No Room for Small Dreams–Courage, Imagination, and the Making of Modern Israel” by Shimon Peres, published in 2017. This is the autobiography of the late prime minister (in the mid-1980’s) of Israel.

Born in 1923, Peres spent the first decade of his life in a shtetl on the Russia/Poland border. In 1934, his (Jewish) family moved to Palestine seeking religious freedom. At fifteen years old, he put his natural leadership skills to good use at the kibbutz Ben-Shemen. The institution was like boarding school, but it emphasized the teaching of skills for agriculture and use of weaponry more than academic subjects.

In 1941, Peres moved to Kibbutz Alumot, where he herded sheep amid olive and date groves. The youths there lived in tents lacking electricity and indoor plumbing.

After WWII, when the Jews were pushing for statehood, Peres became a disciple of David Ben Gurion. He favored a partition between Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land. In 1947, Ben Gurion recruited him for the Haganah, one of the intelligence services of Palestine. However, his lack of fluency in the English language was a handicap. This was remedied in June 1949, when he began to attend the New School for Social Research in New York City. Three years later, he and his family moved back to Israel, where he took a position in the Defense Ministry, and assisted with the founding of El Al Airlines.

In the early 1950’s, neither Great Britain nor the United States was in the mood to sell arms to Israel. Peres found an unexpected supplier in France. In addition, in the summer of 1957, France allegedly mentored Israel in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. In connection therewith, Peres claimed that he planned and organized the construction of a top-secret corporate village in the Negev desert near Beersheba to give the world the impression that Israel was a superpower.

In 1959, the author was elected to the Knesset and also kept a position in the Defense Ministry. In the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Egypt and Syria limited the spoils of their victory to territory they lost in the 1967 Six-Day war. According to the author, in the 1973 war, Egypt’s leader, Anwar Sadat refrained from attacking Israel’s central cities for fear it would retaliate with weapons of mass destruction. Apparently, threat of retaliation was not a deterrent to small-time terrorist groups, such as the PLO, who intermittently killed the Jewish state’s citizens, a few at a time, for decades.

Nevertheless, read the book to learn of Peres’ brilliant political career (according to him) as an economic genius and peacemaker with Jordan and the PLO. Yet, Peres admits he played the former role thanks to Israel’s cozy relationship with the United States. Yassir Arafat could not really guarantee and did not take responsibility for, violence perpetrated by the organization he headed; foolish Peres failed to take heed of the following cliche: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

The Second Book of the Week is “Rabin, Our Life, His Legacy” by Leah Rabin, published in 1997.

Born in April 1928 in Prussia, Leah Rabin met her husband Yitzhak in Palestine’s co-ed military intelligence service– the Palmach– in the 1940’s. The group was actually a secret society because it was deemed illegal by the British authorities.

In Palestine, the author and her beloved lived in a kibbutz or a tent and did farming, herding, hiking and jogging. And firearms training, not to mention military-attack drills. In the summer of 1946, due to Leah’s sixth sense about imminent danger, she avoided getting arrested by the British, but Yitzhak was caught. However, the weaponry hidden in the women’s body cavities went undiscovered because frisking of females by the authorities was chivalrous in those days.

In 1948, after spending more than four months in jail, Yitzhak became a commander in the Harel Brigade, one of three newly formed Palmach divisions. The group became part of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF)– the Israeli military– in 1949. Ten years later, Yitzhak was chief of operations of the IDF.

David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel (which achieved its independence in spring 1948), belonged to the Mapai (Labor) party.  Yitzhak didn’t, and therefore Ben-Gurion favored other men over him when he staffed his government and formulated military policy.

In November 1963, the Rabins made a diplomatic visit to the United States. Just after they returned to Israel, they learned that President John F. Kennedy was dead. “Yitzhak… had just completed an intensive study of state-of-the-art defense and security practices from the most powerful nation in the world, and suddenly we learned that this country’s chief executive was slain by a lone gunman.”

Shortly thereafter, Yitzhak took a break from military matters to become a social butterfly– an ambassador to the U.S., from Israel. Such a lifestyle involves having cocktails, attending parties, making small talk and gossip mongering. In 1973, Yitzhak tried his hand at elective office. He won a seat in the Knesset in the Labor party, and an appointment as Minister of Labor.

In April 1974, Golda Meir felt obligated to resign as Israel’s fifth Prime Minister due to the mishandling of the Yom Kippur war, which had occurred about six months prior. Yitzhak was voted in as her replacement. He was battered about by political contentiousness and decided after three years to resign his Prime Minister post. He remained a member of the Knesset, though. Political comebacks are not uncommon in Israel. Yitzhak staged his in the autumn of 1984. He became the Minister of Defense.

That was when the Mapai and Likud (Conservative) parties merged in order to form a major voting bloc. The new entity was called the National Unity Party. In 1985, Yitzhak helped supervise the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Jordan. He became Prime Minister again in 1992.

In the first half of the 1990’s, Yitzhak Rabin sat down at the negotiating table with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat. Many people thought Arafat was a terrorist who led a terrorist group and would never be trustworthy, and Yitzhak was being way too nice.

Further, U.S. president Bill Clinton, the mediator of the peace talks, had a credibility problem. So– it was kind of like a diplomatic charade because sincerity wasn’t a strong suit of at least two of the three parties there. Further, regardless of the ulterior motives of the three parties involved– history had already shown grave doubts as to whether durable agreements could be reached between the two centuries-long rivals.

Israel had previously had a policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists such as Arafat and had refused to meet with them under any circumstances. However, Rabin believed in appeasement of the Egyptians and Jordanians as well. He was willing to hear them out and sign documents that were supposed to foster peace in the Middle East. In this way, he garnered a lot of political enemies. Ironically, he was shot at a peace rally.

Read the book to learn the details of what transpired, the aftermath (especially the aftermath– through Leah’s eyes) and many more details of Israeli history and Rabin’s role in it.

The Third Book of the Week is “My Country, My Life– Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace” by Ehud Barak, published in 2018.

Born in 1942 in one of the early kibbutzim– Mishmar Hasharon– the small village north of Tel Aviv, Barak pursued a military career from the 1960’s into the 1980’s, alternating it with his education. He led special forces on secret missions. He eventually earned a degree in physics from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and a master’s degree in operations management from Stanford University.

Barak seemed a bit resentful about Israel’s dependence on the United States for its very existence; for, when describing the Yom Kippur War, he omitted the inconvenient fact that the United States sent weapons to Israel when the nation’s ability to defend itself was in serious doubt.

Barak began his political career in summer 1995 when he joined Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s cabinet. At his first vote, he abstained, holding onto his belief that Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories pursuant to the Oslo agreements was the wrong thing to do.

However, during peace talks with Syria, Barak thought the major question was whether, if Israel were to withdraw from the Golan Heights, it could still have a secure border. As a former (military) chief of staff, he argued in the affirmative.

In late winter and spring 1996 during election season, the terrorist group Hamas tried to reduce Shimon Peres’ chances of an election victory by killing tens of Israelis in terrorist attacks. It and Islamic Jihad viewed him as a traitor for conducting negotiations with Yasser Arafat. Peres was forced to retire at 73 years old.

In June 1996, Barak was elected leader of Israel’s Labor Party. It seemed Barak changed his tune and wanted to comply with the Oslo accords in the next couple of years. He got angry at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for delaying Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories. Netanyahu was desperate for power, and withdrawal was politically unpopular.

In summer 1999, Barak was elected prime minister. In May 2000, he ordered the departure of Israeli troops from Lebanon, despite the shenanigans of the PLO in its territorial / recognition / non-belligerence discussions with the Israelis. He rambled on for page after page, detailing the summer 2000 back-and-forth with Arafat, still moderated by U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Arafat turned out to be a tease for two weeks (before Barak realized he’d been played for a fool)– not budging an inch, not counter-offering any concessions while Barak bent over backwards to offer the Palestinians sovereignty over East Jerusalem, a large portion of the occupied territories and the holy sites.

Barak lost his reelection bid in 2001, so he retired. Read the book to learn more about Barak’s life, his views on various political issues, the current situation regarding the Israelis and Palestinians, and Netanyahu’s leadership.

ENDNOTE: A distracting grammatical error that is becoming more and more widespread was made repeatedly throughout the book (the word before the gerund should be possessive):

“Though I wasn’t sure about legal provisions for officers leaving the army…” [It should be officers’ leaving the army]

“What were the prospects of Arafat reining in Hamas and Islamic Jihad?” [It should be Arafat’s reining in …]

I Should Be Dead By Now

The Book of the Week is “I Should Be Dead By Now, The Wild Life and Crazy Times of the NBA’s Greatest Rebounder of Modern Times” by Dennis Rodman With Jack Isenhour, originally published in 2005. Despite its sensationalist title, this slim volume somewhat repetitively, but in detail, gave good reasons for why the subject should be dead, in the form of an expletive-laden, extended reality-show monologue.

Rodman, a former professional basketball player, told a series of anecdotes about himself– the world’s biggest attention whore– that involved his professional and personal antics, love life, and his handlers– the people who tried to keep him safe.

Starting in the 1980’s, Rodman got the media’s attention with his dyed hair (various colors), cross-dressing, tattoos, piercings, makeup, etc. By the new millennium, thanks to his high-paying: athletic career, promotional gigs and celebrity appearances (notwithstanding his expensive on-off relationships), he owned a luxury apartment in Newport Beach, California. “Meanwhile, the parties grew bigger and bigger and the neighbors got madder and madder” about the noise.

In early 2003, Rodman did a reality show called “Rodman on the Rebound” on ESPN, but he wasn’t ready to return to the NBA. The show should have been called, “Rodman on the Rehab.” One reason why occurred in the autumn of 2003 shortly before the start of basketball season, when the Denver Nuggets had agreed to hire him after every team in the National Basketball Association had been scorning him for about three years.

One late night, as he did every night, at a strip club, Rodman consumed a vast quantity of alcohol; even for his six-foot, eight-inch frame. The members of his entourage had to pick their battles with him, as his risky behavior was constant but not always extreme or predictable. On a whim, in the wee hours of the morning, Rodman decided to fly to Las Vegas.

Once there, in the parking lot of another strip club, a stranger allowed Rodman, sans helmet, to ride a new motorcycle. Rodman attempted to do a wheelie. To his credit, he did not gloze over the unpleasant consequences. At the hospital, he claimed that he refused “Novocain.” Also, he hadn’t been wearing underwear, and his torn-up legs needed 70 stitches. There went his NBA-comeback opportunity. The media had initially given him his celebrity status, and had a field day highlighting his stupidity.

Rodman claimed that “… there are many things stats just don’t measure: … how well you can get in another guy’s head, and the number of Redheaded Sluts you can drink and still get it up– all categories in which Dennis Rodman excelled.”

Read the book to learn much more about guess who?

Stars Between the Sun and the Moon – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Stars Between the Sun and the Moon, One Woman’s Life in North Korea and Escape to Freedom” by Lucia Jang and Susan McClelland, published in 2014.

After the Korean War, the Communist Party of North Korea oppressed business owners– who were considered evil capitalists, but praised farmers and peasants– who were considered virtuous; they served the Party.

Adults were forced to attend self-criticism meetings every Saturday morning. The meeting leaders punished them by making them stand up against the wall while others stared at them.

North Korean leader Kim Il-sung dictated that the traditional food eaten on August 15– his birthday– was rice cakes. However, the author’s family couldn’t afford to buy rice cakes. But– he also generously provided a pork ration for one person, to all households.

Jang was born in the early 1970’s. Her family was so poverty-stricken that she had no toys, no books, nothing. Finally, at seven years old when she began to attend school, she was thrilled to have a few possessions of her own: garments, pencils and a backpack. At school, the author and her classmates praised the “great father and eternal president” every morning. Every one of them had his photo of him on their wall at home.

Around the time she started school, Jang and her mother went to a theater for the first time. They saw a movie written by their fearless leader, Kim il-sung. Of course, it ended happily because the peasants conquered the landlords.

During the months of May, September and October, teenagers were sent to the countryside to help with planting and harvesting. The author was literally starving because she lived with a host family or in a dorm where she got even less food than she did at home. But Jang accepted the fact that the nation’s leader and his son were fat because they needed the most energy to take care of the North Korean people.

Traditionally, Jang’s parents were to choose her spouse. Her marital value was greatly diminished because both of her parents had had (political) Party trouble. Nevertheless, having gotten pregnant, she broke tradition.

In July 1994 when Kim il-sung died, the nation got a ten-day mourning period. Jang grieved as though her own father had died.

Read the book to learn of the horrible experiences (which became cyclical after a while) of the author due to various factors, including the environment into which she was born, her culture, gender, lack of education and the circumstances of her generation; and what led to the radical change in her situation.

Counsel for the Defense – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Counsel for the Defense, The Autobiography of Paul O’Dwyer” by Paul O’Dwyer, published in 1979.

Born in County Mayo, Ireland in 1907 to a family of farmers, O’Dwyer was the youngest of eleven children. Gruff and authoritative more than affectionate, his father organized a teachers’ union at the one-room schoolhouse, angering the local priest, whose power was diminished thereby.

When he was eighteen, O’Dwyer emigrated to the United States, following four of his older brothers. While studying pre-law at Fordham University, he remarked, “The contradiction in our giving munificent foreign aid while letting poor whites remain illiterate and hungry was difficult to understand. (The injustice to the Negro community was not even discussed and I did not then think about it.)” In 1926, he attended law school at the then-Brooklyn campus of St. John’s University and joined a political club comprised of Jewish democrats. At that time, Irish Catholics were liberal democrats. U.S. citizenship was required before he was permitted to practice law. He attained that honor two years after passing the bar exam.

O’Dwyer was made a law-firm partner at 26 years old, litigating cases of labor law. In the late 1930’s, his oldest brother was elected to the post of Brooklyn District Attorney. By 1945, the brother was mayor of New York City. O’Dwyer represented the National Lawyer’s Guild, an organization that defended victims of the Communist witch hunt of the McCarthy Era.

Read the book to learn of the author’s adventures in running for offices; why he identified with the Jews who were fighting for the independence of Israel– which led him to handle an arms-smuggling case; of O’Dwyer’s opposition to a literacy test required for voting in some states in the early 1960’s; and his eventual senatorial career, among other legal and political activities.

The Way Around

The Book of the Week is “The Way Around, Finding My Mother and Myself Among the Yanomami” by David Good, with Daniel Paisner, published in 2015.

The Yanomami is an indigenous, Amazon-rain-forest dwelling tribe in southern Venezuela near Brazil, who developed a reputation for hostility. The author dispelled that myth, while describing his unique experience, as a genetic member of the tribe.

Good’s father, an American from New Jersey, did anthropological fieldwork as a graduate student for about a decade, starting in 1975. Due to the loosely defined concept of marriage in the Yanomami culture, he had to decide whether or not to completely adopt the tribe’s lifestyle in order to continue to study them. He took the plunge. He ended up having three children, including the author, with his Yanomami wife.

However, the tribe’s ways are in an alternate universe, when compared with Americans’. Their lack of clothing alone would be considered primitive, never mind their low-tech, spare existence. The author wrote, “The women were all topless. Their faces were variously decorated with tribal markings; their noses, pierced with hii-hi sticks. The child was completely naked.”

The author’s father thought he would be able to move his immediate family away from his wife’s family in Venezuela in the late 1980’s, as he had a stronger desire to live in the United States. This created a cultural clash that led to a rather extreme consequence and psychological damage for all involved.

Read the book to learn how the author was affected by this adverse turn of events, and how he got through it.

Counselor

The Book of the Week is “Counselor, Life At the Edge of History” by Ted Sorensen, published in 2008. This was the autobiography of a political consultant best known for most closely advising JFK for eleven years.

Born in May 1928 in Lincoln, Nebraska, Sorensen considered himself a Danish Russian Jewish Unitarian. His father, appointed Attorney General beginning in 1929, was the oldest of ten surviving children. He helped pass a law that created one nonpartisan legislative body in the Nebraska statehouse. That way, there were no fights, delays or blaming.

Sorensen himself was one of five children. He grew up in an agricultural community with a harsh climate in Nebraska, not unlike that of George McGovern’s South Dakota. There were: droughts, floods, hailstorms, blizzards and grasshoppers.

In summer of 1951, after graduating from a special five-year university law program, Sorensen sought a job by personally walking into law firms to speak with the hirers. He began his career at the Federal Security Administration, which has come to be known as the Department of Health and Human Services. He became depressed when he started to wise up and witness more of the culture of Washington, D.C.: “… more hypocrites than heroes, more sinners than saints.”

At the suggestion of the joint committee staff director, Sorensen lied about his age– put down 25 instead of 24 on his resume because men of 25 were viewed as better job candidates, having more experience. In 1952, he became a speechwriter, advisor and personal assistant to then-Senator John F. Kennedy, his opposite. Sorensen was a plain ol’ country boy, rather than a Northeastern elitist. He didn’t run with JFK’s crowd.

Sorensen claimed that JFK himself actually did the writing of the book “Profiles in Courage” despite rumors that others did. He and others helped with the research. Sorensen mentioned various of the book’s rumored ghostwriters but failed to mention the most commonly named one– Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Upon becoming president, “John F. Kennedy’s speeches stood out because they revived idealism, eloquence, and progressivism, after a decade of Eisenhower’s bland, dry approach and Joe McCarthy’s evil tirades.”

Unfortunately, JFK was afraid of being criticized for being “soft on Communism”– a common fear in those days among politicians who wanted to get reelected. So JFK continued Eisenhower’s actions; by late 1963, he had sent sixteen thousand American military advisors to South Vietnam. In 1968, Sorensen became a campaign advisor to Robert F. Kennedy in his presidential bid; sadly, not for long. Then he practiced law.

Read the book to learn of Sorenson’s adventures with the famed senator and president; his views on what would have happened had JFK not been assassinated; his other endeavors; the toll taken on his health by years of severe sleep deprivation and nonstop (no downtime) international business travel; and much more.