High

The Book of the Week is “High” by Brian O’Dea, published in 2006. This book describes the adventures of an international drug-smuggling participant and addict between the 1970’s and the very early 1990’s.

O’Dea was the son of a brewery owner in Newfoundland, Canada. In the mid-1970’s, he and his smuggling partners secreted cocaine “… in false-bottomed suitcases at the factory in Bogota (Colombia) and muled to Kingston (Jamaica) via Lufthansa…” and unloaded the drug at Montego Bay. Other partners “… would be getting strapped up with the product on their thighs and stomachs and backs. Each person would carry between two and four kilos, worth between $100,000 and $200,000.”

Read the book to learn of the author’s Jamaica trials and tribulations with airplane mishaps, romantic subplots, prison and addiction experiences, his role in an elaborate three-continent marijuana distribution concern, and what finally became of him.

Red Notice

The Book of the Week is “Red Notice, A True Story of High Finance, Murder and One Man’s Fight For Justice” by Bill Browder, published in 2015. This suspenseful, emotional saga should be made into a motion picture, as it is not only entertaining and engaging, but is a comprehensive picture of the extremes of human nature.

Rebelling against his left wing intellectual family, Browder became a capitalist. During his career, he worked under two big bosses who died under mysterious, suspicious circumstances– Bob Maxwell and Edmond Safra. As a young whippersnapper, he longed to do investment consulting in Eastern Europe, but had to settle for London. Browder got in on the ground floor when the Russian securities industry was in its infancy in the early 1990’s.

In early 2000, the power of Russian Federation president Vladimir Putin, was actually held by “… oligarchs, regional governors, and organized-crime groups.” Browder started a hedge fund called Hermitage. What with complex economic and political goings-on, his hedge fund became the victim of the Russian mentality. In 2006, Hermitage had to “… sell billions of dollars worth of Russian securities without anyone knowing.” That was just one of many traumatic episodes in Browder’s career.

The author had the brains and skills to become not only a successful financial consultant and investor, but a muckraker; however, this made him a “Darwin Award” candidate. He became involved in a true thriller with intrigue, greed, power hunger, human rights abuses and karma. Russia struck at his attorney, Sergei Magnitsky. Numerous Russians in positions of authority– in the government, prisons, the police– all lied to the world about what happened to Magnitsky. Under Putin’s rule, Russia had reverted to the Stalinism of the 1920’s, with thousands of dissidents tortured and killed.

The few people whose eyes were open, who were raising the alarm– were risking their own lives. The rest of the world didn’t want to get involved because they were of the mentality that the violence was confined to Russia, and it wouldn’t spread to them. And they might end up like those dissidents if they rocked the boat. Besides, in the 2000’s, people have become desensitized to human rights abuses due to the widespread, propagandized publicizing of them (like video clips arousing viewers’ morbid curiosity, of the alleged beheadings of journalists by Middle Easterners on YouTube).

(Please excuse the legalese in this paragraph- but it is the briefest way of explanation) Some people would say that Browder had “unclean hands” and there was “contributory negliglence” on his part, so his story should not have deserved the special attention it got. Admittedly, he was out for revenge, not because he truly wanted to stem uncivil behavior in the world. He made his living in an industry full of greedy people whose scruples are less than stellar– securities. He made a ton of money by engaging in “self-dealing” and insider trading, which would be considered violations of American securities laws. He was from America, the country that gave rise to the corrupt economic system in Russia in the first place. It might be recalled that Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs gave bad advice to Boris Yeltsin (to put it generously), convincing him to adopt “shock capitalism” — a ruinous financial plan. Lastly, Browder had “constructive knowledge” that doing business in Russia was especially risky (not just financially), compared to other countries. Arguably, he was trying to apply American morals and laws to get justice in a situation in which he had profited from Russian morals and lawlessness. Some people would say, “Pox on everyone’s house.”

Browder wrote, “There was something almost biblical about Sergei’s story, and even though I am not a religious man, as I sat there watching history unfold, I couldn’t help but feel that God had intervened in this case.” This blogger thinks that, but for Browder’s powerful professional and political contacts who intervened in this case, it would be just another infuriating, depressing, suppressed, and eventually forgotten human rights abuse story.

Read the book to learn the details of the story, including the actions taken against the morally bankrupt, brazen Russian criminals, and learn whether justice was done.

From Exile to Washington

The Book of the Week is “From Exile to Washington” by W. Michael Blumenthal, published in 2013. This tome describes the historical times of the author, with some autobiographical bragging thrown in.

Blumenthal, born in 1926 in Germany, happened to have a Jewish last name when Hitler came to power. He endured the hardships of living in Shanghai as a refugee when his family fled Germany on the eve of WWII. After the war, as a Displaced Person, he waited years for permission to live in the United States. When the Jews in Shanghai learned of the atrocities that had been committed against their fellow religionists, they considered the terms “Germany” and “Germans” anathema. No one wanted to go back to Europe. The most sought after destinations were Palestine, America, Australia or South America.

The author became Americanized but his life experiences gave him a unique perspective on his homeland and China that not many people had. In 1960, he, like many other Americans, was inspired by President Kennedy’s language of idealism and sacrifice to volunteer to help his country through government service.

Read the book to learn about the lofty corporate and government positions held by the author, and the historical backdrop of his life.

 

Why Do Only White People…

The Book of the Week is ” ‘Why Do Only White People Get Abducted By Aliens?’ ” by Ilana Garon, published in 2013. This is the personal account of a New York City high school English teacher who began her career during the early years of the Bloomberg mayoral administration. Fresh out of college, but passionate and focused, she became a Teaching Fellow in a rigorous training summer-school program in the Bronx in 2003.

The author, like many, many other teachers before and since, suffered psychologically draining experiences at an overcrowded, inner-city school in her first year teaching. Garon’s day had fourteen periods, ending at 5:55pm. She became privy to numerous bad home situations, and was involved in her share of in-school incidents. Her school had a heavy police presence and metal detectors that were used to screen all the students every time they entered the campus. She wrote, “… am continuing to teach at a school where all I do is discipline….”

There were ethnic tensions among light-skinned, darker-skinned, and Spanish-speaking kids. When students engaged in fighting in the hallway, “…it sounds like a bomb… Everyone starts screaming, the crowd of about one hundred kids…” There were also gang fights. It wasn’t just the boys, either. “Rather than the boys, who would throw punches, the girls would hold each other in death grips, trying to slam each other into floors or walls and pull each other’s hair out.”

Someone asked the author why she didn’t assign a particular novel about African Americans to her class. She tried to explain that the reason she didn’t, wasn’t that the book would be too hard for them– it had nothing to do with the stereotype that people of their ethnicity can’t read as well as others; it was that the book would be too hard for most of the students, given their poor reading, writing and verbal skills, regardless of their ethnicity.

Despite many of the students’ abysmal literacy, Garon was under pressure by higher-ups to give the students a passing grade, whether or not they completed their coursework, or demonstrated that they learned anything. Unsurprisingly, by the spring of her first year, she had also been subjected to sexual harassment from faculty members, and the mentoring system had failed her. Her mentor, who doubled as the baseball coach, absented himself from mentoring her in the spring.

In her second year, the author was assigned to “team-teach” one of her classes– a Special Education inclusion class of 33 boys; in other words, a boatload of behavior problems. The other teacher on her team was a Filipino who spoke only Tagalog (no English), while the students spoke only English and Spanish.

Garon was threatened by a student for confiscating a note he was passing to another student in her classroom. She couldn’t let that go. She had to assert her authority over the students or else they’d walk all over her ever after. However, reporting the student was a legal can of worms. The bureaucracy required a court hearing by the Board of Education. She had to get on the stand and testify. The student had a lawyer present. It took five hours. It happened to be scheduled on the same day as parent-teacher conferences. So she missed most of them.

Garon discussed the case of a cute, smart African American boy in her class who was a year younger than his classmates. His situation had looked so promising when she first met him. His parents and teachers were encouraging and cared about his education. He was attending a good school. Garon thought his academic performance suffered between ninth and tenth grades due to peer pressure– the other kids would socially ostracize him for being “white” and nerdy if he got good grades.

The author teaches the kinds of kids she does, because she wants to make a difference in these deprived youngsters, compensate those who “… had been slighted in more ways than I could enumerate, while my peers and I had been given ever more incalculable advantages over them.” She feels that poverty is the main obstacle to their getting an education. This means home environment– their homes lack the same resources that other kids have; for starters– they lack parents who care about their education, who teach them behavior patterns that lead to success.

Read the book to learn of the slew of other issues Garon faces on a daily basis.

Foxcatcher

The Book of the Week is “Foxcatcher” by Mark Schultz with David Thomas, published in 2014. This autobiography discusses the author’s experiences in high school, college and professional wrestling in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, and his association with John du Pont.

Wrestling is comprised of technique, conditioning and luck. The season runs from November through March, and fans can be loud, obnoxious and profane. Schultz and his older brother, Dave, were passionate wrestlers. In 1983, they competed in the World Championships in Kiev, Russia. In 1984, they were the first brothers in United States wrestling history to win Olympic gold medals. During a time in his career when he struggled to make a living, Schultz put on wrestling clinics. He was employable in this capacity because he had been a global wrestling celebrity, hired by high school wrestling coaches. Wrestling is a nonrevenue sport. On the other hand, Russian wrestlers are paid to train and compete on the Olympic team.

John du Pont was an eccentric, super-rich donor to Villanova University who decided to start a wrestling program there in the mid 1980’s. Schultz assisted with that effort. John du Pont broke the NCAA rules in various ways because he could, just to be controlling. He produced awards ceremonies for himself. “John got a kick out of manipulating people to see if they would go against their principles in exchange for money.”

Read the book to learn the details of Schultz’s wrestling life, and du Pont’s actions in connection therewith.

Psychedelic Bubble Gum

The Book of the Week is “Psychedelic Bubble Gum” by Bobby Hart, published in 2015. This is the autobiography of a singer/songwriter.

Hart started his career in 1958, at eighteen years old. He was signed to a management/recording artist contract, but he had to “pay to play.” It cost him $400– a lot of money in those days– for the privilege of recording, with other musicians, “A” and “B” sides of two 45-rpm records. His producer did hire top-notch talent, however.

In the early 1960’s, every weekend, Hart played music at high school auditoriums around southern California with already-famous groups such as Jan and Dean, the Righteous Brothers, the Coasters and the Beach Boys. He wasn’t paid for it, but he had to do it in exchange for the promotion of his records in Los Angeles.

This blogger was a bit perturbed by the author’s factually erroneous line, “… in the upscale New York City suburb of Riverdale.” The author’s producer’s Manhattan office contained numerous cubicles occupied by singer-songwriters, including Hart and his songwriting partner, Tommy Boyce. They cooperated well and weren’t credit-grabbers. In 1964, he and Boyce wrote a song for Jay Black & the Americans. He got 1/3 of a cent per record sold, because his two co-writers got royalties, too.

Read the book to learn how he came to co-write songs for The Monkees (who sold more records than The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined) and The Partridge family, what transpired when he and his partner hired an aggressive manager, and how he built a successful recording and performing career.

What’s So Funny

The Book of the Week is “What’s So Funny?” by Tim Conway with Jane Scovell, published in 2013. This is the comedian’s autobiography. An only child born in December 1933 to an Irish father and Romanian mother, he grew up in a suburb of Cleveland. The former groomed horses and the latter made slipcovers for sofas at a time they were becoming popular in American living rooms. Conway is best known for acting on the Carol Burnett Show.

Conway started gaining experience in an entertainment career in his mid-20’s, at a Cleveland radio station. When he had “made it” on TV, he performed material he had written himself. In the early 1960’s, Steve Allen, the late-night talk-show host, told Conway to change his first name from Tom to Tim, because there was another performer named Tom Conway, so he did.

Read the book to learn of the antics Conway used to break into show business in his generation, and of the characters who populated his life.