The Book of the Week is “Casting With A Fragile Thread” by Wendy Kann, published in 2007. This is the engaging memoir of a native white-skinned Rhodesian. She describes the familial and financial hardships she and her two sisters faced growing up with an absent mother and a risk-taking father, in a nation undergoing radical political change. In 1980, Rhodesia came to be ruled by Robert Mugabe, a dark-skinned dictator, who allowed the country to be ravaged by his previously oppressed countrymen. Read the book to learn how the author put her difficulties behind her.
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.
The Book of the Week is “Irrepressible, the Life and Times of Jessica Mitford” by Leslie Brody, published in 2010. This biography recounts the life of the chain-smoking, hard-drinking, charismatic rebel. Her motley English family included duke and duchess parents, two Nazi-sympathizing sisters, three other sisters, a brother, and she, who, born during WWI, was a Communist.
Jessica, nicknamed “Decca,” led an eventful life. In her late teens, she ran away with her lover to the United States. Later, she underwent an abortion, committed thievery from the wealthy social set with whom she rubbed shoulders, pleaded the Fifth Amendment on the stand at a McCarthy hearing, eventually gave birth to four children, raised money with her second husband for the Civil Rights movement, wrote several books including a very successful one on the American death industry, and grieved over deaths of various of her family members. She enjoyed herself to the fullest, regardless of what others thought of her actions, falling in and out of relationships with her family members through the years.
In a letter to her unconventional daughter, nicknamed “Dinky,” Decca provided her take on life:
“One is only really inwardly comfortable, so to speak, after one’s life has assumed some sort of shape… which would include goals set by onseself and a circle of life-time type friends… Even after one has, all may be knocked out of shape, so one has to start over again…”
The Book of the Week is “Piaf” by Simone Bertaut, published in 1969. This is Bertaut’s biography of her sister, Edith Piaf. They shared the same father, and both grew up in Paris in the nineteen teens and twenties, with nary a formal education.
Edith spent her early childhood in a brothel whose occupants acted as her surrogate mothers, because her biological mother never cared much for her. However, her father was an artist and street performer, who took her with him as soon as she was old enough to sing so he could earn enough money to survive. Fortunately, she had incredible natural talent. Simone also accompanied her father on his rounds after Edith had left him, but she could only do some simple acrobatics. At fifteen years old, Edith took twelve year old Simone into her employ, and Edith embarked on her quest for fame and fortune as a singer.
The inseparable sisters endured many hardships before Edith achieved fame. Throughout her life, the strong-willed, bossy Edith fell in and out of love with numerous men, some of whom she made into singing stars. Read the book to learn about her antics with them, and other aspects of her edgy existence in the fast lane.
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 Book of the Week is “Lieutenant Birnbaum: A Soldier’s Story: Growing Up Jewish in America, Liberating the D.P. Camps, and a New Home in Jerusalem” by Meyer Birnbaum, published in 1994. This is the autobiography of a memorable character. He rose quickly through the ranks of the U.S. Army during WWII, though not without trouble.
In one incident, he was court-martialed for practicing his religion. Religious law dictated that Birnbaum wear a yarmulke all the time, including meal times. An Army rule prohibited the wearing of a “hat” while eating. Birnbaum’s attorney was incompetent, so Birnbaum defended himself at his hearing. He argued that a phrase in the oath he took upon his military induction indicated that his religion was more important than his patriotism: ” …to serve God and my country …” He was acquitted.
Read the book for further adventures of this clever military officer.
The Book of the Week is “An Irish Country Childhood” by Marrie Walsh, published in 1995. This is the kind of book on which a movie or TV show (such as Meet Me in St. Louis or Little House on the Prairie) might be based. It describes the spirit of the times of a particular culture in a certain era; in this case, an agricultural community in County Mayo, Ireland in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
Walsh was born in 1929. She attended public school where “The teachers were not local and they never mixed socially. Teaching was a very prestigious job in those days…” Her maternal grandmother and great aunt attended a Hedgerow School, which evolved during the enforcement of the Penal Laws (1695-1829), a time of oppression of Catholics by Great Britain. Classes in Irish, Latin and English were held outdoors. Tuition was in the form of corn or turf.
“Brought up on a daily diet of legends, myths and ghost stories,” Walsh and her many siblings were fascinated by the paranormal. Various places mentioned in her anecdotes were haunted. The author’s ancestors thought weasels were actually witches and were therefore scared of them.
The kids performed labor on farms in the community, and received compensation in the form of being taught a song or story, and perhaps some food. They loved drinking buttermilk, and participated in daring episodes of pinching fruit from the neighbors’ orchards until they got caught. Read the book to learn more about this and Walsh’s other adventures.
The Book of the Week is “My Childhood” by Maxim Gorky, first published in 1913. This slim volume describes the first sad ten years of Gorky’s life (1868-1878), although throughout, neither dates nor place-names are specified. Gorky’s father died when he was very young, and his mother chose not to live with the author and her parents. His (maternal) grandfather was physically and verbally abusive toward him and his grandmother. Alcohol and violence flowed freely among them and his uncles, who ran a fabric-dyeing business. Gorky felt his character was shaped by the “various simple obscure people” he met while growing up. He learned to accept the way the Russians did, that “through the poverty and squalor of their lives, suffering comes as a diversion, is turned into a game and they play at it like children and rarely feel ashamed of their misfortune.”
His grandmother gave birth to eighteen children, but it was not made clear how many survived. She frequently told him stories and advised him on culinary and religious matters. Her meager income was derived by lace-making. She had learned the craft at ten years of age from her mother who had become crippled. Thereafter, they did not need to beg anymore. Sometimes Gorky’s mother put in a brief appearance and later she quickly disappeared, leaving nothing at all to be remembered by. He began short-lived bouts of formal education, and endured Bible-related and poetry teachings from his grandparents. By the end of his first decade, Gorky had fallen in with a crowd of kids his own age with whom he hung out on the streets, and was taking care of a baby brother.
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.
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.