Louis Renault, A Biography

The Book of the Week is “Louis Renault, A Biography” by Anthony Rhodes, published in 1969.

Renault, an automobile entrepreneur, was born in February 1877. When he began his career, there were only two classes of any real importance in France– the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. Renault sold vehicles initially for commercial purposes like taxis, public buses and milk delivery trucks.

By 1905, there were 22 intensely competing European automakers. The year 1908 saw six-cylinder engines made by eight French, ten American, three Belgian and one German manufacturer. In 1909, Renault sold his cars in New York. The goal was to sell 1,200 to 1,500 of them.

In the 1920’s, Citroen, Renault’s chief rival, employed many women in his factories. He conducted an ongoing direct-marketing campaign, mailing letters to potential first-time and new car buyers who had visited the local showroom and expressed interest in a purchase. He also made toy models of his cars for kids. Renault and Citroen competed in starting bus lines between cities in France. Citroen was taken over by Michelin after going bankrupt in 1935.

Read the book to learn of Renault’s accumulation of wealth, his company’s corporate culture and labor troubles, what transpired among automakers during the World Wars and through the decades, and how history dealt Renault a serious blow toward the end of his life.

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind

The Book of the Week is “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, published in 2009.

This ebook is the inspiring autobiography of a boy born in 1988 in Kasungu, Malawi. He grew up on a farm where corn, tobacco and pumpkins were grown and livestock was raised. The people there believe in witchcraft, but his father believed God protected his family from it because they were Presbyterian. Nevertheless, he wrote, “Sadly, our country’s constitution doesn’t have a clause that protects us from witchcraft.” He recounted incidents in the single-digit 2000’s in which people were put on trial for witchcraft and when deemed guilty, heavily fined.

In the mid 1990’s, entertainment in the “trading center” near Kasungu consisted of “… a thatch hut with wooden benches, a small television, and a VCR” on which to watch movies.  The author and his friends played a game they called “USA versus Vietnam.”

The Malawians celebrate their independence from Great Britain on July 6. Throughout his childhood, the author was a fan of the MTL Wanderers, aka the Nomads, a professional soccer club– the enemy team of the Big Bullets, in the Malawi Super League. He listened to the games on Radio One on a battery-operated radio. There was only one other radio station, Radio Two. Both were run by the government. The author wrote, “Only 2% of Malawians have electricity, and this is a huge problem.”

Read the book to learn of the extreme hardships Kamkwamba and his family faced with respect to famine and his education, and learn of his ingenuity, resourcefulness, persistence and industriousness in doing a project that was eventually noticed by people halfway around the world.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

The Book of the Week is “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” by Crystal Zevon, published in 2007. This is a biography of singer/ songwriter/ guitar player, Warren Zevon, written by his ex-wife.

Born in 1947, Zevon started partying like a rock star in his teenage years. He and fellow musicians partook of a variety of controlled substances, including marijuana, acid and hash. Warren later became addicted to alcohol and prescription painkillers. Philandering was a lifelong part of Zevon’s persona. Nevertheless, he was well-versed in what developed nations consider “the classics” in literature and in classical composers. As an adolescent, he was afforded the opportunity to meet Igor Stravinsky.

The many people interviewed for this ebook who drifted in and out of Zevon’s life all said he was immensely talented at writing imaganitive song lyrics. However, the reason most of them had a relationship with him that was rocky, or permanently severed, was due to his temperament when he was drunk, or his taking offense at a remark they made. He would ignore their communications for weeks or months.

At times, Zevon could utter witty lines, such as a) the title of this ebook, and, b) in the author’s recollection, “I can’t eat on an empty stomach.’ He’d down a little more vodka and we’d go have breakfast. Of course, every afternoon we spent hours in the cocktail lounge…” Sometimes, his self-destructive tendencies were insane, such as when she observed him playing darts in his bedroom; absent a dartboard. “There were all these holes in the wall… they were knife holes. He was lying in bed throwing a knife at the wall.” He also suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, for which he received no treatment. Various of his residences were a disaster.

The songs Zevon became most famous for include “Werewolves in London” and “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” Read the book to learn about a) his music career making albums; b) his composing music for movies; c) playing in the band on a prominent TV show as a fill-in musician; and d) whether he was able to turn his life around and repair his severed relationships with his family, friends and colleagues.

The Undiscovered Paul Robeson

The Book of the Week is “The Undiscovered Paul Robeson”  by Paul Robeson, Jr., published in 2001.

This is a biographical account of Paul Robeson from his birth until the start of WWII, written by his son. At times, it is like a soap opera. This ebook is mostly commentary on the diary entries, letters and notes of Robeson and his wife, Essie, and covers the following topics:

  • Robeson’s runaway success as a scholar and athlete in the nineteen-teens in the United States
  • how Robeson came to choose his ultimate career of professional actor and singer, starting in the mid-1920’s
  • how Essie’s identity was dependent on Robeson’s because she gave up her own career to manage his career
  • anti-black discrimination the couple encountered
  • his extramarital affairs
  • the intimate details of their relationship
  • Essie’s health problems
  • Robeson’s on-and-off presence during his son’s early childhood years
  • Robeson’s philosophy on life and international political activities

Robeson took up the cause of fighting for civil rights for African Americans, but his son writes, “He lived a pampered, aristocratic life, far from the radical humiliations endured daily by even the highest-ranking blacks in the United States.” In the 1930’s, the Robeson family was living in the Soviet Union because the country showed no racism, colonialism or fascism; thus, Robeson was able to overlook the atrocities committed by Stalin at a time when the behavior displayed by other nations was ugly.

Also in the 1930’s, Robeson decided he did not want to act in theatrical or movie roles that portrayed negative black stereotypes. His mythic status, which eventually brought him great wealth, afforded him flexibility in deciding the course of his career.

Read the book to learn all you ever wanted to know about Paul Robeson up until WWII.

Al Jaffee’s Mad Life

The Book of the Week is “Al Jaffee’s Mad Life:  A Biography” by Mary-Lou Weisman, published in 2010.

This book describes the life of the oldest of four sons of neglectful parents. Fortunately, that son had a marketable, incredible talent that allowed him to live a decent life as an adult.

When Jaffee was six years old, in 1927, his mother decided to take her sons from Savannah, Georgia, back with her to a shtetl in an increasingly anti-Semitic Lithuania. The family– absent the father, who stayed in the United States, scrounging out a living as a part-time postal worker– went back and forth between their new and old countries a few times, causing emotional upheaval for all involved.

Read the book to learn the details of Jaffee’s unstable childhood and how he parlayed his experience with hardship into a successful career in cartooning.

One Of Us

The Book of the Week is “One of Us” by Tom Wicker.  This is a biography of Richard Nixon, published in 1991.

This book discusses aspects of the late president’s psychology as well as his life story and historical events. Nixon had an inferiority complex. He always felt like an outsider in Washington because he was a Duke University, rather than an Ivy League, graduate. He used an apt phrase to describe the focus one needs to succeed in a law career: a “lead butt” that can sit in a chair for hours, reading.

Despite his shameful crimes and resignation, he still took some actions that benefited the United States, the most well known of which was “opening up” China.

Against Medical Advice

The Book of the Week is “Against Medical Advice” by James Patterson and Hal Friedman, published in 2008. This book discusses the struggle of a teenage boy (Friedman’s son) with various psychological disorders; obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourette’s syndrome among them.

Cory tried to live a normal life, but by his teen years, he had fallen woefully behind socially and educationally. He had friends, but they were misfits like himself. At one point, he tried checking into an institution but found his life was not improving. However, the law required him to stay there a certain number of days, unless his parents signed a document stating he was refusing to accept the judgement of professionals about his treatment.

A last-ditch effort saw Cory enter an extremely radical program– a survival camp, of sorts– in which kids were forced to cooperate with each other in a harsh environment, or literally face death.

Read the book to learn how Cory fared.

Justice Brennan, Liberal Champion

The Book of the Week is “Justice Brennan, Liberal Champion” by Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel, published in 2010. As can be surmised from the title, this book is about Supreme Court Justice William Brennan’s life and liberalism.

When Brennan was first appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower in the mid 1950’s, the United States Supreme Court was ruling on cases dealing with integration, Communism and censorship of pornography. “Brennan and his allies on the Court were being attacked by the mid 1960’s for encouraging racial mixing, coddling Communists and trying to drive God out of public life.”

The Court turned very conservative after Richard Nixon was elected president. Conservative politicians secretly investigated liberals for any conflicts of interest, or worse sins, to force the liberal justices off the Court. Brennan quit all teaching and lecturing to eliminate all of his own conflicts of interest and divested himself of real estate interests and stock. No other liberal justices took such precautions.

Although principled, legally obedient and even supportive of several women’s rights issues, ironically, Brennan refused to hire females as clerks in his own chambers. It was only after an aide wrote to him in strong language in the early 1970’s– that sooner or later, someone would sue a Supreme Court Justice alleging gender discrimination in clerk selection. Besides, Brennan would want his own daughter to be hired, if she were in a position to apply.

The Court stayed conservative for the rest of Brennan’s tenure. Read the book to learn the impact Brennan made on the Court nevertheless.

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.

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…”