The Jack Bank

The Book of the Week is “The Jack Bank, A Memoir of A South African Childhood” by Glen Retief, published in 2011.  This autobiography focuses on the author’s realizing his gay identity in a specific generation– as a white South African male in the last years of apartheid.  While coming of age, he struggled with not only apartheid, but with “authoritarianism, patriarchy and cycles of violence.”

The author explains that his family was English, rather than Afrikaner.  The latter people were militant in nature.  He illustrates this point by recounting his experiences at nine and ten years old, of playing war games with his Afrikaner friend, and looking up to his friend’s father, a police officer, as a role model.

At twelve, he was sent to boarding school.  As a freshman, he was subjected to extremely brutal bullying.  Later, as an upperclassman, he himself did the bullying. He would have undergone this pattern again– in “military basic training, and then the whites-only conscript force… to control forty million black South Africans;” however, Nelson Mandela’s political activities finally succeeded at the tail end of the 1980’s.  Prior to that, Retief witnessed examples of the pattern again and again, at university and later in his black boyfriend’s violent, rundown neighborhood.

Read the book to learn more details of what growing up was like under South African apartheid, and what the author did to find his place in the world.

Street Without A Name

The Book of the Week is “Street Without a Name” by Kapka Kassabova, published in 2009.  This autobiography describes the brand of Communism the author experienced as a child in 1970’s and 80’s Sofia, Bulgaria, and the Bulgarian historical events that interested her.

It was an unspoken, dirty little secret that the Communist lifestyle was actually inferior to that of the West. The Bulgarian government told the people that “Politburo comrades were heroes of the anti-Fascist resistance” and “the labor camps were for enemies of the people.”

The author’s mother branded Bulgaria’s leader and his cronies “idiots in brown suits.”  The State oversaw all academic, athletic and musical events, such as a contest called the Olympiads, in which grade-school kids competed in different subjects.  At ten years old, Kassabova was convinced that the West consisted of drug addicts, criminals, capitalists and dreadful child labor, based on one story:  Dickens’ “David Copperfield.”

Her parents both worked in the field of engineering, which placed the family in the middle class. Even so, the family lived in a third-class (out of four classes) concrete neighborhood where blocks were numbered. At the furniture store, there was a three or four-month waiting list for shelves and beds, that only afforded one the opportunity to physically fight for the desired items when the delivery truck arrived at the store in the wee hours.

One time, when the author was eleven, her father met someone from the Netherlands through his work, and invited his family to go “camping” with his own, on the outskirts of Sofia.  The Dutch visitors arrived in a recreational vehicle (RV), while the Bulgarian family had brought a hard-to-obtain, shabby military tent.  (As an aside, the cost of the RV equalled about twenty years’ worth of the author’s mother’s income.)  The Dutch were horrified by the disgusting state of the toilets, and the “rubbish and dogs everywhere.”  The Dutch, in addition to their sparkling new vehicle, brought Western goods, including Gummi Bears, chocolate biscuits, juice in little cartons, and one of ten varieties of potato grown in their home country.

The Kassabovas knew their standard of living under Communism was way overrated by their government but they could not leave Bulgaria– until the Berlin Wall fell.  Even then, they had to complete a ton of bureaucratic paperwork and wait years.  During such time, the author’s mother underwent a stay in the hospital, where there were newspapers instead of sheets, and soap and towels had to be provided by patients themselves.  The author’s father paid a large bribe to the head doctor so as to see the patient emerge from the hospital alive; during Bulgaria’s transition to capitalism, there was more corruption than before– which is saying a lot.

Read the book to learn more about the author’s perspective on her life and birth country.

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.

Testament of Youth

The Book of the Week is “Testament of Youth” by Vera Brittain, published in 1934.  This is the depressing memoir of a young woman in England whose hardships were typical for her generation.

Ms. Brittain wrote, “…To me and my contemporaries, with our cheerful confidence in the benignity of fate, War was something remote, unimaginable, its monstrous destructions and distresses safely shut up… between the covers of history books.”  She was in her late teens at the outbreak of WWI.  She had just started college a couple of years after graduating high school, at one of the women’s schools of Oxford University.  Ms. Brittain would not have been afforded such opportunity had a scholarly friend of her family not convinced her sexist father that educating females was worthwhile. Nevertheless, the entrance exams were rigorous. A glutton for punishment, she decided to major in history– about which she knew little– rather than English literature, which she knew well.

Then, to do her part for the war effort, Ms. Brittain took a leave of absence from school to nurse wounded soldiers for the Red Cross. She spent a total of three years in England and France performing unpleasant tasks, witnessing gruesome injuries and dying men, and chafing at orders of the bitchy matrons who were her bosses.  Her younger brother had also just begun school, when he and three of his school chums were called up to fight in the war.  One of the three became her boyfriend; she was friends with the other two as well.  All parties exchanged numerous letters, detailing their activities, and expressing their fears, hopes and opinions about the war.  In the next two years, all four young men died.

Ms. Brittain remarked, “No doubt the post-war generation was wise in its assumption that patriotism had ‘nothing to it,’ and we pre-war lot were just poor boobs for letting ourselves be kidded into thinking that it had.  The smashing-up of one’s youth seemed rather a heavy price to pay for making the mistake, but fools always did come in for a worse punishment than knaves; we knew that now.”

The author described progress on women’s rights issues, as she considered herself a feminist.  In the early 1920’s, England granted the vote to women over thirty years of age, because there was a disproportionate number of women in the voting population after the war.  Oxford began granting degrees to women, rather than simply allowing them to take classes to further their education.  Postwar, Ms. Brittain was no longer considered rude when she uttered the words “pregnancy” and “prostitution” in public (as opposed to “a certain condition” and “a certain profession.”) She and her friends freely discussed sodomy, lesbianism and venereal disease.

After Ms. Brittain finished her degree, she did some lecturing, teaching and publishing, and went to work for the League of Nations.  She took her time deciding whether to marry a man who had pursued her.  She was thinking, if she had a child, she would hope to a have a daughter, because a son might go to war and die.

Johnny’s Girl

The Book of the Week is “Johnny’s Girl:  A Daughter’s Memoir of Growing Up in Alaska’s Underworld” by Kim Rich, published in 1993.  In this book, Ms. Rich described her unusual childhood in Alaska, a place to which organized crime figures such as her father fled, to hide from the authorities.  Her mother, an ex-stripper, was in and out of mental hospitals.  Ms. Rich came of age in the 1960’s, about which she had this to say:

“Life was a trip… The one sure way to fail was not to take the trip… out of the middle class, away from the lives your parents had led… The idea was, you would end up a happy, fully realized human being only if you took some risks.  Taking a risk could mean joining the Peace Corps or hitchhiking across Europe, dropping acid or dating a black guy, becoming a vegetarian or chanting ‘Hare Krishna’ or quitting a job to go to New Hampshire to campaign for Gene McCarthy.”

Read the book to find out what kind of trip Ms. Rich took.

Catfish and Mandala

The Book of the Week is “Catfish and Mandala” by Andrew X. Pham, published in 1999.

This book is the memoir of An, a Vietnamese native whose family fled to California from Vietnam in the spring of 1975, just before Saigon fell. He alternates chapters describing his family’s history, and his bike trip.

An was born in Vietnam, but has mixed Asian blood, so he looks different from everyone. When he returns to Vietnam in his twenties on his bike trip, having been Westernized, he is called the derogatory term, “Viet-kieu.” He flies to, and then cycles through most of the country, to revisit his childhood memories and motherland.

An writes, “… I grew up fighting blacks, whites, and Chicanos… And everybody beat up the Chinaman whether or not he was really an ethnic Chinese. These new Vietnamese kids were easy pickings, small, bookish, passive, and not fluent in English.” So each Asian group segregates itself by nationality in Chinatowns and Japantowns.

An is still grappling with his racial identity. However, writing this book has made it easier, by making others aware of his plight.

Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference

The Book of the Week is “Teacher:  The One Who Made the Difference” by Mark Edmundson, published in 2002.  The author wrote this book as a tribute to his high school philosophy teacher.  One of many memorable questions the teacher asked during the school year was, “Why do we need leaders?”  Answer:  We need someone to think for us.  Many of us human beings are lazy and we do not want to think for ourselves.  The author described how even the class clown was made to think, and learned something in this teacher’s class.

The Heart is the Teacher

The Book of the Week is “The Heart is the Teacher” by Leonard Covello, published in 1958.  The author came to the U.S. from Italy when he was nine. He became a passionate teacher, and later, principal of Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem, New York City.

Benjamin Franklin said about education, “If a man empties his purse into his head, no man can take it away from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”

Mr. Covello said about being a teacher, “I am the teacher. I am older, presumably wiser than you, the pupils. I am in possession of knowledge which you don’t have. It is my function to transfer this knowledge from my mind to yours… certain ground rules must be set up and adhered to. I talk. You listen. I give. You take. Yes, we will be friends, we will share, we will discuss, we will have open sessions for healthy disagreement– but only within the context of the relationship I have described, and the respect for my position as teacher which must go with it.”

Enough said.