Memoirs

The Book of the Week is “Memoirs” by Mikhail Gorbachev, published in 1995. This tome described the Soviet leader’s push for political and economic change for the benefit of the millions and millions of people governed by him.

Born in March 1931 in Stavropol, Gorbachev grew up to become a bureaucrat, following the mentality of his agricultural community.  The (federal) Central Committee of the Soviet Union (the Union) had a command economy– the government dictated all aspects of labor, capital and goods. It also assigned housing to all people living in the Union, including officials, pursuant to the political hierarchy. Additionally, vacation houses (dachas) were bestowed upon higher-level officials. Incidentally, according to the author, Politburo members socialized among themselves at work-related functions only, nowhere else– because they were afraid others would gossip about them.

The bureaucracy by the State Planning Committee (“Gosplan”) generated endless memoranda and plenums, not to mention meetings– on harvests, irrigation, infrastructure and what to do about natural disasters such as drought. A dozen different departments and ministries involved themselves in the approval process. “At the beginning of each year the oblast [Communist] Party committees would make unrealistic commitments, which were promptly forgotten. Manipulators were the heroes of the day. Those who worked diligently were looked upon with pity.”

The local government felt a desperate need to keep a stranglehold on their power. They were content with their culture of bribes, graft and mutual favors. So the bureaucrats scotched an early 1960’s capitalistic experiment of paying piece-rate wages to farmers in the infant territory of Kazakhstan when productivity caused payroll expenses to soar. Yet, the bosses wanted to see high returns on a stingy budget.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, farms disappeared when the Union underwent a period of industrialization with extraction of fossil fuels, the introduction of electricity, and construction of army bases. The Baltic Republics counteracted increased soil salinity with lime, but Latvia didn’t. The use of weed killer worsened the already unchecked spread of pollution.

Gorbachev wrote of 1985, “No one even imagined the extent of our ecological disaster, how far we were behind the developed nations as a result of our barbaric attitude toward nature… A wave of bitterness and anger rolled through the country when it came out that the genetic pool of our peoples had been threatened.” Curiously, starting in mid-November 1982, the Union had a series of three leaders who died of ill health within a three-year period: Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko.

Besides, the Politburo consisted of “dead wood” who preferred to maintain the status quo because their own living standards were the highest in the nation in terms of housing, health care, education and necessaries (food, clothing). Each bureaucrat was like the Wizard of Oz–  a phony behind a curtain– except that Gorbachev couldn’t even offer accurate data to the people who needed his help.

Members of government agencies– for the purpose of public and foreign consumption– generated fanciful statistics on the Union’s products: weapons, grain, oil, gas and metals. The real numbers were abysmal. The KGB’s numerical data were also kept secret. That was just the tip of the iceberg on censorship. No negative news coverage of anyone was allowed (except of dissidents). In the spring of 1987, Gorbachev was distressed to learn that true military expenses accounted for 40% of the Union’s budget, and 20% of GNP. Four-fifths of “scientific research” was military-related.

Gorbachev opposed sovereignty for territories ruled by the Union’s central government due to his paternalistic arrogance. He claimed he wasn’t informed that Soviet tanks rolled in to Georgia to quell unrest in the spring of 1989.

Back in March 1987, Margaret Thatcher criticized Gorbachev for making arms shipments to war-prone nations worldwide. He said she made the (hypocritical, untruthful) claim that the West and the United States sent financial aid and food instead, to needy nations. He tried to correct her. No word on whether he succeeded.

On their first visit to the United States in the mid-1980’s, Gorbachev and his wife Raisa were defamed by American propaganda. The media contended that Raisa wouldn’t deign to visit specific places. In reality– those places were on her schedule but she couldn’t control her vehicle’s driver in her motorcade who bypassed those places without consulting her. Also, the tabloids made up the story that she was having a cat fight with Nancy Reagan.

Gorbachev knew and took the risks involved in “rocking the boat” to move the nation forward after so many decades of deleterious political and economic self-delusion, with his concepts of “glasnost” and “perestroika.”

Read the book to learn the details, and how he was punished for doing so, why Soviet tanks rolled into Moscow (!) in October 1993, and how the Union broke up.

Endnote:  This book’s translation was awkward in a few spots, such as: “After our forces were sent to Afghanistan, the USA and other nations took a number of measures against us.” [were sent?]

boys in the trees – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “boys in the trees (sic), A Memoir” by Carly Simon, published in 2015.

Born in 1945 in Manhattan, Simon grew up in a wealthy, dysfunctional family of four children. Her father was the co-founder of Simon and Schuster, the publishing giant. When Simon was eight years old, her 42 year-old mother acquired a boyfriend, in the guise of a 19 year-old babysitter for Simon’s younger brother. The family moved to Riverdale (the northwesternmost section of the Bronx in New York City) and summered on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. The family hung out with the literary, political and musical celebrity crowd in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Simon found that music soothed her troubled soul. She became a stutterer at an early age, due to prepubescent sexual encounters with an older boy. Her uncle became a second father to her, as her biological father chose the younger of her two older sisters, as his favorite.

Simon was to have “… many difficult experiences with men in the music business.” When she was in her late teens, one or both of the men who helped her record her first song professionally, “… deliberately sabotaged the track; cutting it in the wrong key as payback for me not responding to their sexual advances.”

Nevertheless, Simon bragged about having sex with various big names; Jack Nicholson, Cat Stevens, Warren Beatty and Michael Crichton among them. She claimed that her song, “You’re So Vain” does not represent any one person. The original lyrics do say, “clouds in my coffee” and not “grounds in my coffee.”

Read the book to learn everything you ever wanted to know about Simon’s relationship with James Taylor, plus other information about her family and emotional states, through the time she had to cancel her concert series due to mental illness, in the early 1980’s. The book did not cover her career comeback.

Summing Up – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Summing Up, An Autobiography” by Yitzhak Shamir, published in 1994.

Born in 1915 in a very small town that was alternately Soviet and Polish territory, future Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was fluent in Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish. Although they were Zionists, his parents were active in the Bund, the recently founded non-religious, anti-Zionist Socialist party that attracted Eastern European Jews to its ranks.

At twenty years old, Shamir moved to Palestine. Over the next three decades, he served in three of the different militant underground groups/intelligence services fighting for the independence, and later, the continued existence, of a Jewish state in the world.

Shamir believed in practicing frontier justice– unlike Menachem Begin, who thought disputes should be settled through law courts. In March 1981, Shamir favored the preemptive Israeli bombing mission that took out the Iraq nuclear arms factory that Saddam Hussein built with the help of the French.

In June 1982, violence in Lebanon was already the status quo when Israel sought to eliminate the PLO once and for all in that bloodied nation. The civil war in Lebanon was a complicated affair with conflicts among Shiites, Sunnis, Maronites, Druze, Palestinians, Syrian troops and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

Amid the fighting, Lebanese terrorists massacred hundreds or thousands of people in two Palestinian refugee camps that were supposed to be guarded by the Israeli military. Even though Shamir was then-foreign minister of Israel, the way he was informed of the incident by his subordinates didn’t convince him that such violence was out of the ordinary.

Nevertheless, the media of various countries blamed  Israel for the deaths, and created an atmosphere ranging from “… outright lies to elaborate carelessness, from staged photographs of atrocities all the way to phoney (sic) interviews– just as long as the Jewish state and the IDF were besmirched.” Excuse the cliche, but there’s nothing new under the sun. A refugee crisis is not a new propaganda tool.

In August 1983, Prime Minister Begin resigned/retired. Perhaps the job was no longer fun for him. Due to a hotly contested election, Shamir was pushed into an arrangement with Shimon Peres whereby they each would serve about a three-year term as prime minister, leading their respective parties; the former, the Likud (conservative) party, and the latter, the Alignment party, whose collective name was the National Unity Government, between 1984 and 1990.

Shamir contended that the Arab nations had a double standard when it came to helping their allies– the Palestinians. Beginning in 1948, the Arab states wouldn’t take in Palestinian refugees, but instead, kept them in squalid camps for almost half a century “… solely for the anti-Israel propaganda benefits… thousands of children, who could have been rescued from their dreadful lives a hundred times over by the investment of a fraction of the Arab oil revenues and helped by the Arab rulers to relocate somewhere in the Arab world.”

On the other hand, through the decades, Israel has welcomed with open arms– as many as it could afford to accommodate– anyone who self-identified as Jewish and wanted to live there.

Anyway, read the book to learn of the ways that American Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton were actually anti-Israel, and of the actions of Israeli government officials (Shamir’s own countrymen!) that so distressed him in later years, and much more.

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate

The Book of the Week is “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate” by Al Franken, published in 2017.

Born in 1951, Al Franken grew up in Minnesota. His career as a comedy writer for the TV show Saturday Night Live spanned about fifteen non-consecutive years, starting with its first season in 1975. He also entertained American servicemen in the Middle East in the single-digit 2000’s.

Franken wrote that Norm Coleman put his own life and other American lives in danger because he failed to make sure that Americans stationed in Iraq in 2003 were provided with adequate protective gear. Coleman’s job was to oversee war contracting of equipment and hold hearings when he witnessed fraud, waste or abuse. He held zero hearings; Harry S Truman, who held a similar position during the United State’s WWII preparations, held 432 hearings.

Then, after decades in show business, Franken really sold out and entered politics. He eventually ran against Norm Coleman for the office of U.S. senator from Minnesota. Coleman, petty and litigious, contested the election results to the maximum– a recipe for sky-high legal bills and time-consuming nonsense; eight months to be exact… wait for it… Franken won.

Franken’s political opponents were masters at using misleading statistics. Fortunately, his sensitivity to liars was on high-alert. He pointed out that by 2016, the Republican landscape was littered with broken promises. They had failed to prove that Kenya was Obama’s birthplace, were unable to bankrupt Planned Parenthood by stripping it of subsidies, and failed to overhaul the new national healthcare system. Franken expressed his skepticism about replacing that last item. Ever.

Read the book to learn what it’s like to be a senator, what Franken was still seeking to accomplish politically at the book’s writing, and the (funny!) jokes he couldn’t tell in public (uncensored!).

A Memoir According to Kathy Griffin – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “A Memoir According to Kathy Griffin” by Kathy Griffin, published in 2009.

This memoir described the comedian whose shtick consisted of telling humorous, embarrassing stories about members of the entertainment industry. Or, as she characterized herself: “… someone who gets fired, stirs up trouble, and gets debated about on CNN for saying bad things on award shows.” Kudos to her for being an honest, amusing attention whore. She must have brought in sufficient profits for the entertainment industry to tolerate her behavior.

Born in November 1960 in Forest Park, Illinois, the youngest of five children, Griffin grew up in Oak Park, Illinois. At eighteen years old, she moved to Santa Monica, California to be an actress. She apparently had the talent, drive and creativity to get famous.

In the early 2000’s, Griffin performed sufficiently well at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles to double the length of her show to two hours. This allowed the cocktail waitresses to make sufficient money to pay their rent, “Plus they loved serving the gays, because they were well-dressed, respectful and tipped well.”

Griffin didn’t talk about Anna Nicole Smith right after she died out of respect. As Greg Giraldo would have said, “Too soon, too soon.” Griffin revealed deeply personal information– both of her parents were functional alcoholics, and her oldest brother was a pedophile and substance abuser.

Griffin tried to raise the alarm about her brother, but, as she joked– her parents thought “denial” was a river in Egypt. She admitted to two major errors in her life– poor judgment in both her marriage and in having liposuction. Read the book to learn the details of this and other episodes.

SERIOUS ENDNOTE: Griffin had no qualms about making political statements unrelated to the awards shows she attended. It is therefore not inappropriate to make a political statement unrelated to Griffin’s book, below.

This nation seems to be in denial about the amount of debt load currently carried by not only individuals and businesses, but by the federal government and local governments. It appears that bankruptcies of government entities is the next financial crisis in the offing; the reason why, will be explained shortly.

Within the last thirty or so years alone, the United States has seen greed fests and then busts with regard to junk bonds, savings and loan associations, derivatives, tech stocks, and subprime mortgages, just to name a few. Mortgage-backed securities used to be one of the lowest-risk investments around. Tax-free municipal bonds are presumably still one of the lowest-risk investments around.

BUT one small bond brokerage (and possibly others, too) whose website says it “specialize[s] in tax-free municipal bonds. That’s all we do.” recently changed the language on its customers’ monthly statements. It is forcing them to accept the words, “trading & speculation” (!) for their “Investment objective/Risk tolerance” or else they won’t be able to purchase bonds. It makes itself sound like a penny-stock broker-dealer of the 1980’s that churns accounts. Or a currency broker.

The brokerage is so phobic about covering itself legally that there must be bond issuers who are going to go belly up AFTER THE CURRENT PRESIDENT HAS BEEN REELECTED or has left office, whenever that is. (It might be recalled that Detroit took the plunge in July 2013, after Obama was reelected.) Or its brokers are getting greedy and unscrupulous. Or both. Good luck with that, all.

Shoe Dog

The Book of the Week is “Shoe Dog, A Memoir by the Creator of Nike” by Phil Knight, published in 2016.

Born in 1938 in Portland Oregon, Knight showed irrepressible passion and optimism through years and years of financial losses. He got seed money from his father, and moral support from his mother.

By his mid-twenties, Knight possessed a quality education but still needed to find himself. He did some international traveling with a friend. He learned that Japan made running shoes he could import and sell in the U.S. So in 1964, he partnered with his college track coach– a legend in his social circle- to start a business. At that time, “running wasn’t even a sport.”

Even though he was a pioneer in an evolving industry, he returned to school to become a Certified Public Accountant, just in case the sneaker gig didn’t pan out. He was working around the clock at a full-time accounting job, and nurturing his shoe business. He and later, his employees, personally drove to track meets of schools in western states to meet and sell sneakers to scores of people– coaches, runners, fans.

Banks lending money to businesses at the time did not provide revolving credit facilities– they expected to see solvency. Knight believed in reinvesting every penny of profit into the business– thus generating an endless debt cycle.

He would borrow to purchase more sneakers, sell them, then repeat the process. He had to have competitive sales prices for his products; else they wouldn’t sell against Puma and Adidas. But they were selling like hotcakes. Starting in the mid-1960’s, before he rented a warehouse, he stored the shoes, floor to ceiling, in his bachelor pad. The business was initially named Blue Ribbon and the first shoe model was named Tiger.

At the 1972 Olympics in Munich, eleven Israelis were killed in a terrorist attack. The nation was again mourning yet more deaths, in addition to those of previous years– the Kennedys, Martin Luther King Jr., the Kent State University students, and of course, the tens of thousands in Vietnam. “Ours was a difficult, death-drenched age, and at least once every day you were forced to ask yourself: What’s the point?”

By 1976, Knight had changed his business’s name to Nike Inc. and had factories in New England, Puerto Rico and Taiwan. Unsurprisingly, his family life took a backseat to his workaholic lifestyle.

Read the book to learn of Knight’s interactions with his business partners and their personalities, and the million worries he faced every day in running his business, including products, manufacturing, warehousing, distribution, advertising, retailing, and dealing with lenders, employees, counterfeit goods, etc., etc. etc.; plus, what prompted him to take the company public.

The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt” published in installments from 1937 through 1961.

Born in October 1884, Eleanor grew up in a wealthy family with a few younger siblings. Her mother died of diphtheria when she was eight. Her father thereafter practiced spousification briefly, then left the household, and died the following year. One of her grandfathers was the Theodore Roosevelt.

Eleanor’s grandmother, aunts and uncle assumed responsibility for raising her. They convinced her that charitable activities were a virtue, and they did a lot of that.

Eleanor’s immediate family alternately resided in New York and France. When in New York, they lived with the household help in a mansion in the Madison Square neighborhood. But spent summers at an estate called Tivoli in upstate New York; Hyde Park, to be specific. On rare occasions, she was permitted to visit the family of her grandfather Theodore in Oyster Bay, Long Island. That’s where she met her distant cousin and later husband, Franklin.

At fifteen years of age, Eleanor was sent to an all-female boarding school. She eventually became a starter on the field hockey team. She studied French, German, Latin, Italian, history and music. Upon graduation, young ladies of her generation (debutantes) “came out” — searched for a husband, but were chaperoned everywhere they went.

On Saint Patrick’s Day in 1905, Eleanor married Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). They eventually had six children. When he was appointed Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy, she became his social secretary. As did many other women, she knitted for her country during WWI.  She also entertained foreign dignitaries, worked for the Red Cross canteen, and visited the war wounded at the naval hospital.

Through all of her social and political activities, Eleanor met hundreds of people who were instrumental in furthering her husband’s political career. He was elected governor of New York State in 1928. When he became president, no Secret Service agents protected her because she wanted privacy. Thus, they trained her to use a revolver, which she kept on her person at all times.

After her husband passed away, Eleanor began participating in meetings to form the United Nations. She was reading briefing papers containing information on international affairs marked, Top Secret “… but it appeared in the newspapers even before it reached us.”

Read the book to learn of the myriad other ways Eleanor filled in every second of her days– including her travels for purposes of speech-making and diplomatic visits to meet with foreign government officials (especially royal family members); being a daily columnist– and her opinions of America vis a vis other countries. Shamefully, she failed to achieve world peace.

A Good Fight – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “A Good Fight” by Sarah Brady With Merrill McLoughlin, published in 2002. This is the autobiography of a secondary victim of firearms-violence turned gun-control activist in the United States.

Sarah’s husband, Jim, had just begun to serve as press secretary for President Ronald Reagan. In March 1981, Jim was caught in the crossfire– shot in the head– in the assassination attempt on Reagan. Jim required extensive medical care, having sustained brain damage that resulted in paralysis of his legs and other ongoing quality-of-life complications.

What sparked an interest in gun-control advocacy in Sarah Brady, a lifelong Republican, was an incident during the summer of 1985 involving the cavalier attitude of adults in her husband’s hometown (Centralia, IL) about firearms. People had guns casually lying around, giving children easy (accidental, but deadly) access. Of course, adults, too, who get a gun can kill someone. It is harder if they don’t have a gun.

Reagan’s would-be assassin might have been denied access to his .22 caliber weapon if the-then gun laws had required a background check on him. When he bought it in a pawn shop in Dallas, he gave a fake address and showed an outdated Texas driver’s license.

The 1968 Gun Control Act was rendered useless when gun makers found a loophole in it. Importing of “Saturday night specials” was banned, but importing of their parts wasn’t. So the guns were assembled upon arrival at the factory and sold in this country.

Sarah initially volunteered to help a nonprofit group called Handgun Control, which pushed for gun-control legislation. In 1986, it put forth the Brady Bill, which would close the loopholes in the existing laws and  require background checks on gun buyers. It did not try to ban anyone from buying or possessing firearms altogether. State laws diverged significantly in working on gun control legislation, due to pressures imposed by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other groups.

Sarah explicitly wrote that she wasn’t pushing to eliminate the Second Amendment in the U.S. Bill of Rights. She began speech-making at universities, city clubs and civic organizations.

In 1988, Handgun Control successfully lobbied to ban (non-metal) handguns able to fool metal detectors at airports. The group received invaluable assistance from Senator Nancy Kassebaum, Republican from Kansas. Sarah mentioned various other politicians, helpful and obstructionist. The vast majority showed her minimum courtesy by returning her telephone calls. Not then-Congressman Dick Cheney from Wyoming. Never.

George H.W. Bush claimed that he “so admired” the work Handgun Control was doing. However, a major campaign donor of his, the NRA, prevented him from acting on that sentiment to support the Brady Bill in any way, shape or form in 1989, when it still had yet to pass Congress.

Sarah delivered a speech at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Childish, vicious hecklers with poor impulse control shouted her down, screaming “Liar, liar!!!” Law enforcement officers did nothing to eject them, but had semi-automatic weapons at the ready– in case they got violent. And people wonder why there are so many shooting sprees in the United States.

One small way that shooting sprees could possibly be reduced would be to regulate hate speech and threats on social media. If, pursuant to a legal definition of “hate speech” and “threats” the perpetrators of hate speech and threats could be not only banned, but deemed to be breaking the law (if they mention weaponry in their messages)– then law enforcement would have probable cause to obtain a warrant to search their homes and workplaces for weaponry that is unlicensed or was obtained through dishonest means. Thus, if executed carefully, such a chain of events wouldn’t be a Fourth Amendment violation. It is unclear at this time whether this would be a Federal or State matter.

Read the book to learn why 1994 was a banner year for gun-control advocates, about disputes on concealed weapons, about a 1997 ruling of the U. S. Supreme Court, why a background check on American gun buyers in almost half of the states is not really thorough, and much more about Sarah.

Twenty Chickens For A Saddle

The Book of the Week is “Twenty Chickens For A Saddle” by Robyn Scott, published in 2008. This autobiography described people who chose an adventurous lifestyle over one of comfort, safety and convention.

Botswana was a peaceful, well-fed nation, thanks to the government’s policy of designating more than three-quarters of the country as tribal trust land. It was a demilitarized zone where anyone could graze their animals.

In late 1987, the author’s parents decided to move with their two daughters and son from New Zealand to a rural area in Botswana. The author was the oldest, at seven. The father had been a homeopathic doctor but became a physician at five different government-run clinics (only one of which had a telephone; none had electricity and running water), flying to them by light plane on different days. The mother was a home-schooling mom.

The family fixed up a long-abandoned cowshed for their residence. They lived close to the father’s father– a colorful character– and his second wife; some miles away from an abandoned nickel/copper mine. He helped with their education– teaching them Latin names of all sorts of flora and fauna. For the most part, life-threatening dangers and primitive conditions abounded. There were heat, mosquitoes, poisonous snakes, HIV, wild horses and machine parts such as detonators that were supposed to be illegal. The kids did, however, take ballet and tennis lessons in town. And they had a home library. They even had a zipline over their swimming pool with a slide.

While the mother recovered from a medical problem, the author and her younger brother attended a free primary school for a term. Its student body was mostly white people; the government-run school that charged a fee was farther away and was mostly black people. Girls began school at six years old, while boys who had cow-herding to do, started at eight or nine.

The author loved the structure of a classroom, and the competition for gold stars.  Her mother inspired a love of learning, but had a free-for-all curriculum and no government supervision whatsoever.

The author joined what would be equivalent to the Brownies in the United States; her brother joined the Cub Scouts. At term’s end, the kids returned to home-schooling. When they reached their early teens, they did self-directed projects for a New Zealand correspondence course in agriculture, architecture and transport. Then they entered boarding school. The author attended a Dominican convent school in Zimbabwe.

The author described the daily trials and tribulations her father encountered in seeing patients, as Botswanans believe in ancestor worship and witchcraft. He had an even tougher time beginning in the early 1990’s, when the AIDS crisis hit the nation.

At that time, the family moved to a nicer property, but it was near the border with South Africa. There was a block association of sorts, which had racist policies– “Newcomers mustn’t offer higher wages to their black servants, or else all the Tuli Block farmers would have to pay the price. Livelihoods might be ruined!” Most of the farmers had large plots of land and hundreds of heads of cattle.

Read the book to learn many more details of the author’s unique experiences and her entrepreneurial endeavors.