Peter Stuyvesant, Boy With Wooden Shoes

The Book of the Week is “Peter Stuyvesant, Boy With Wooden Shoes” by Mable Cleland Widdemer, published in 1950. This is a children’s biography of Peter Stuyvesant. He had adventures growing up in Holland, and as an adult in Curacao and Brazil and New Amsterdam while serving as a political representative for the West India Company from the mid-1640’s through the 1660’s. Despite his arrogance, bad temper and stubbornness, he was a born leader.

When he arrived in New Amsterdam, Stuyvesant was appalled to find that farmyard animals ran rampant in the unpaved streets. In addition, fire hazards such as wooden chimneys and whole houses made of wood, and reed roofs, abounded. He paved the streets with cobblestones, and mandated the use of brick, stone and tile. He also shored up the city’s defense: “The men had to build a fort to protect them from the enemy who may come by sea, and a wall across the island to separate them from wild animals of the forests and ‘red men.” Stuyvesant traded furs, meat and fish for the Native Americans’ blankets, beads and wampum, but he would not give them firearms.

The Burghers and Councilmen ignored Peter’s wish to fight an English takeover of New Amsterdam. So the English took over and it was renamed New York, after the brother of the King of England, the Duke of York, in September 1664. Peter returned to Holland for four years, then returned to New York because he liked it so much.

A Boy Named Shel

The Book of the Week is “A Boy Named Shel: The Life and Times of Shel Silverstein” by Lisa Rogak, published in 2007. This biography describes the life of the cartoonist, children’s poet and songwriter.

Silverstein was an eccentric, creative thinker who collaborated with other like-minded individuals.  He started out as a cartoonist. However, his social skills were poor. One such friend of his who was interviewed for this book remarked that he never stayed in one place for long.

As an adult, whenever he got bored with a conversation he might be having with a friend at an eatery where they met to exchange ideas, he would simply get up and leave without warning. He would also switch residences frequently– he kept several inside and outside the United States. Fortunately, he could afford to do whatever he liked, whenever he liked, once royalties started rolling in from sales of various works he wrote, such as the best-selling classic children’s book of poems, “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” the song “A Boy Named Sue” (sung by Johnny Cash) and the rather depressing children’s book “The Giving Tree.”

Although Silverstein had difficulty getting along with his father, he still grieved at his father’s death.  He realized “You never get over it.”

An Unquiet Mind

The Book of the Week is “An Unquiet Mind” by Kay Redfield Jamison, published in 1995.  This autobiography tells the story of someone with bipolar disorder (also called manic-depressive illness) who had gone undiagnosed until, ironically, she started working on her PhD in psychology.

Jamison was showing symptoms in high school– hearing music in her head, clear as a bell, and staying up all night, sometimes more than one night, energetically completing schoolwork. Sometimes she spoke too fast for people to understand her.  A little later, she went on credit-card spending sprees and could not remember them afterwards. She also fell into periods of extreme depression.  The continual up-and-down cycle lasted about three days. She theorized that she had inherited the disorder from her father.

When Jamison got to graduate school, she was given a questionnaire on symptoms of her condition.  That was the first time she got an inkling that she was mentally unbalanced.  Read the book to learn how she dealt with this revelation.

Casting With A Fragile Thread

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 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.

Irrepressible

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…”

Piaf

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.

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.

Lieutenant Birnbaum

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.

An Irish Country Childhood

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.