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.

Colors of the Mountain

The Book of the Week is “Colors of the Mountain” by Da Chen.  This is the autobiography of someone growing up in China during the middle and later years of the Cultural Revolution under Communist dictator Mao Tse Tung.  Since Da, born in 1962, was the youngest of several brothers and sisters at a time when Mao was reversing China’s education policy toward one of competitive college-entrance exams, Da became his family’s only hope for a better life.  The siblings unfortunately, were doomed to a life of backbreaking toil on the farm, under Mao’s reign.  Da, on the other hand, was provided with the opportunity to take three days of the extremely extensive “regurgitation” exams.  He rose to the occasion, studying with his friend for hours and hours every day for months on end.

His friend, who smoked big, fat cigars, was a nonchalant sort under much less pressure. He could afford to goof off. For, the friend’s family owned a lucrative tobacco farm, and failing his exam would mean merely entering the family business, which was not such a bad consequence.  That is what happened to the friend.

Da’s hard work paid off.  He achieved the highest test scores in his region, an exceptional triumph, since he was from a rural area where students received test preparation inferior to that in urban areas.  He had heard that learning English was very important if one wanted to study abroad.  However, it was rumored to be very difficult for Chinese people to learn to pronounce English with an accent that was comprehensible to people in English-speaking countries.  But learning English was important for increasing one’s options for a better life. Da was treated to a tuition-free university education and learned English.  Read the book to learn how he fared thereafter.

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.

Just For Fun

The Book of the Week is “Just For Fun” by Linus Torvalds, published in 2002.  This is the autobiography of a computer geek who fell into fame and fortune.  He hails from Finland, where internet access is extremely widespread.  While in graduate school, he created the kernel for a new computer operating system he named after himself, “Linux.”  It is based on the existing system, “Unix.”  Linux is “open source,” meaning, a community of computer users can change the system’s source code to improve it.  Theoretically, any user who wishes to, can volunteer to work on the code. If it is imperfect, others will correct it.  Also, the system can be downloaded free of charge.

Torvalds’ family lived in a region of Finland where the people were Swedish-speaking, and reticent.  Besides, Torvalds fit the stereotype of the computer geek; admittedly he “lacked any social graces whatsoever.”  One day in the early 1990’s, he started a project on which he was to work around the clock, for nine months straight.  It was “just for fun.” He explained that computer programming requires the simultaneous tracking of many ideas and lots of information when one is in the thick of it.  Of course, many people helped him with Linux, which was introduced just at the time the open source movement was becoming widespread among computer hobbyists.  He accepted donations through his website, to keep the project alive.

Surprisingly, Torvalds got married.  Unsurprisingly, he went to work for a tech firm in California, where he made some money from stock options (before it was too late).

A Gift of Laughter

The Book of the Week is “A Gift of Laughter” by Allan Sherman published in 1965.  This is the autobiography of song parodist and co-creator of the TV show “I’ve Got a Secret.”

Sherman became most famous for the song, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” which describes the humorous adventures of a kid in summer camp. President John F. Kennedy was heard to be humming his song, “Sarah Jackman” while walking through the lobby of the Plaza Hotel in New York City.  Some of Sherman’s other songs, such as “J.C. Cohen,” “Al ‘N’ Yetta” and “Harvey and Sheila” also captured Jewish stereotypes, but had American appeal.

In the book, Sherman provided bits of trivia on Hollywood of the 1950’s and 1960’s. When he had finally become rich and famous, he bought a house next door to Harpo Marx, with a rubber tree in the yard.  When he was interviewing candidates to hire a secretary, he came across one who deliberately failed a typing test.  She admitted to him she was a member of an “Unemployment Club.”

The goal was to stay jobless for the maximum membership duration, six months, at which time her unemployment benefits ran out, anyway.  She was receiving $55 a week, which was pooled with benefits of eleven other people, who were renting a sprawling ranch house in the Hollywood Hills (that had a swimming pool), and a convertible car.  Members engaged in sunbathing and skinny dipping, and practiced free love.

Sadly, Sherman died at 49 years old of heart disease, possibly due to his admittedly poor diet of Kraft macaroni and “cheese” dinners. He was survived by his college-sweetheart wife, a son and a daughter.

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.

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found

The Book of the Week is “Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found” by Suketu Mehta, published in 2004.

The author is a fiction writer and journalist who grew up in Bombay and Jackson Heights, New York. He discusses in intimate detail, the culture of Bombay (now called Mumbai), a city of 14 million people. Mehta also examines the lives of several Bombayites living in extreme situations, including an organized-crime detective and “mob” members, a strip club dancer and a club patron, a partial transsexual, and a Jain. He graphically depicts the activities of people living in the Bombay slums, and his own reasons for moving back and forth between India and New York.

He writes, “…because your family misses you. It’s the reason I’ve gone back, been pulled back, again and again…What I found in most of my Bombay characters was freedom… Most of them don’t pay taxes, don’t fill out forms. They don’t stay in one place or in one relationship long enough to build up assets… Surviving in a modern country involves dealing with an immense amount of paper.”

Mehta is torn between New York, in a country with modern conveniences (but with paperwork and financial worries) and Bombay, where his family lives (but with the stresses of simple survival– its poor or nonexistent sanitation, and rampant corruption that obstructs the attainment of even basic services, such as water and electricity.)

The extreme contrasts were interesting.

Confessions of A Raving, Unconfined Nut

The Book of the Week is “Confessions of A Raving, Unconfined Nut:  Misadventures in Counter-Culture” by Paul Krassner, published in 1994.  Paul Krassner was a radical in the 1960’s, in Abbie Hoffman’s crowd.   He wrote that when radicals are bored, they start a magazine.  Hence, at the end of the 1950’s, he founded the publication “The Realist,” consisting of “social-political-religious criticism and satire.”

True to the title of his book, he was also quite the irreverent smartass.  On one occasion, when his significant other hid a marijuana cigarette in a bodily orifice of hers so as not to be charged with possession in a police raid, he could not resist remarking, “What’s a nice joint like that doing in a girl like you?”

Krassner confesses that his divorce was due to his unfaithfulness.  He describes an episode of “quality time” with his 15-year old daughter in South America, where they participated in a drug trip they perceived to be mind-enhancing, in a controlled environment with a group.

Krassner discusses his and other counter-culture members’ anti-war activities, including burning (illegal) photocopies of his draft card at numerous protests on college campuses across the nation.

This book provides an entertaining, informative introduction to the societal outliers of the 1960’s.

To Kill A Tiger

The Book of the Week is the memoir, “To Kill a Tiger” by Jid Lee, published in 2010.  The author describes the extreme hardships (“tigers”) she endured growing up, due to the culture of her generation in South Korea.

After WWII, North Korean dictator Syngman Rhee and South Korean dictator Kim Il Sung both conducted witchhunts to root out political dissidents, torturing and killing them.  Kim was aided by the U.S. in his oppressive endeavors. The author’s father engaged in anti-government, pro-socialist activities as a college student, and as a consequence, was:  expelled from a prestigious university, tortured, imprisoned and forced to accept a lowly position teaching instead of “selling out” to become a high government official. Yes, this happened in South Korea.

The education system was based on rote learning. The author, born in 1955, unfortunately had trouble with memorization, and therefore did poorly in school.  Her two older brothers tutored her extensively to help her pass the admissions test that allowed her to attend a decent high school.  However, she failed her college admissions test– two eight-hour exam days– twice, and had to settle for a second-tier college a year later than her peers.

Since she was female, she was expected to help her mother with all the household chores in addition to attending school and studying, which meant she labored sixteen hours a day starting in middle school.  In her male-dominated world, during her teenage years, stress and anger were relieved through abuse heaped upon her by her father, older brothers, grandmother and mother.  She in turn rebelliously fought back against her mother and was mean to her younger sister.

There was extreme pressure for both genders to attend prestigious schools but the educational elitism for females merely served the purpose of “marrying well.” After college graduation, the daughters were supposed to enter into marriages arranged by their fathers, and be good wives and mothers.   Read the book to learn what has become of the author.

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.