Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

The Book of the Week is “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking” by Anya Von Bremzen, published in 2013. This volume recounts the food-related details of the lives of the author (born in 1963) and her mother, who, up until 1974, lived in the former Soviet Union before moving to the United States. As can be surmised, they suffered many hardships from successive oppressive regimes that gave rise to hunger.

Under Vladimir Lenin in 1918 Russia, “The very notion of pleasure from flavorful food was reviled as capitalist degeneracy.” Millions died of starvation under Stalin in 1927 when he took over the means of grain production. The author’s grandfather, possessor of exceptional survival skills, was an intelligence officer under Stalin, so Von Bremzen’s family had access to the food of the wealthy. The author’s mother raised her to be a food snob. Stalin’s personal culinary expert Anastas Mikoyan visited America in 1936. “Unlike evil, devious Britain, the US was considered a semi-friendly competitor – though having American relatives could still land you in the gulag.” That attitude had changed by 1952.

The author’s mother celebrated the anniversary of Stalin’s March 1953 death, with a dinner party. She wed in 1958 at a government office and “…moved into her mother-in-law’s communal apartment where eighteen families shared one kitchen.”

The Soviets recycled mayonnaise jars all the time for many purposes, including medical samples; the jar itself was expected to be provided by the patient. When the author and her mother moved to the U.S., “Ahead of us was an era of blithely disposable objects.” Von Bremzen’s culture shock arose while food-shopping not from the dizzying array of products, but from the inability to show off those products to less fortunate people, such as Soviets. All Americans took such cornucopia for granted. She was disgusted that American food appeared to be phony and lowbrow, like Spam. At Christmas, Von Bremzen was grossed out by Oreos: “…charcoal-black cookies filled with something white and synthetic. A charcoal-black cookie! Would anyone eat such a thing?”

Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign ired many Soviets, as “Getting booze for the holidays ranked at the top of everyone’s concerns.” All the Soviet intelligentsia drank excessively. It was unpatriotic to not drink. Everyone had a drinking partner. Proposing toasts and making conversation with the partner was mandatory. Drinking alone was anathema, socially unacceptable.

Read the book to learn more about the Soviet culinary culture and history through the decades, and even see some authentic recipes.

Meskel

The Book of the Week is “Meskel” by Mellina and Lukas Fanouris, originally published in 1995.

This is the story of two families, two of whose members– the authors– married and lived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (formerly Abyssinia) through the 1970’s. Their forebears had originally come from Greece to live in Abyssinia in 1926. Upon settling in their new country, wife and husband of one family– Evangelia and Manoli Fanouris, started a Greek restaurant, and newspaper and magazine distribution business/bookstore. Then they began having children; Lukas was one of the younger ones.

In late 1934, there was border fighting between Abyssinia and Italian Somaliland. The Italians used poison gas against the Somalis. Although Evangelia’s brother Logotheti had designed the Royal Palace and had friends in high places, Emperor Haile Selassie still threatened Manoli with death because he sold foreign publications that were critical of the regime. Other untoward events occurred through the years, due to the Italian invasion and later, WWII. Nevertheless, the Fanouris did not leave the country, as their business provided them with a good life.

Mellina married Lukas Fanouris when he aggressively courted her. The families had known each other for years from the Greek community in Addis Ababa. She worked for the United Nations. In late 1973, Ethiopia was facing “… union unrest, drought in the north, and rumors of famine, allegations of corruption in the government and rising food prices.” Army soldiers were fed up with their living conditions and turned against the Emperor. Lukas’ parents lived richly, what with a five-bedroom, five-bath mansion, flower garden, balcony and verandas. But there came a time when they finally needed to flee anti-government strikes, protests and violence.

In September 1974, a documentary on Ethiopians’ starvation due to drought was finally released, after the military had taken control of the media. In December, the nation changed from a kingdom to a socialist state, limiting the imported reading material of the populace to Marx, Lenin and Engels. Businesses were nationalized and martial law was imposed. The new leader, Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, copied other dictators in recent memory– Stalin (U.S.S.R.), Mao Tse Tung (China), Peron (Argentina), Pinochet (Chile) and Pol Pot (Cambodia), by ordering citizens to do hard manual labor on farms, telling them to take pride in feeding the country; and by imposing the usual witchhunts, torture, arrests, show-trials and imprisonment for political dissidents and members of the old regime. Not to mention the trampling on what industrialized, democtratic nations would consider due process.

Read the book to learn the details of how the authors survived the attack on their freedoms through the 1970’s, and the suspenseful survival saga of Lukas and his brother Pavlos.

Bonus Post

This blogger read (except for the first and last sections) “My Father, His Daughter” by Yael Dayan, first published in 1985. This is an account of the life of Moshe Dayan and his relationship with the author– his only daughter. It starts and ends with the circumstances surrounding his death (a bit of a tedious pity party).

The author’s father, an alpha male, became a legendary figure in Israel as a military leader and political appointee on and off from the 1930’s through the 1970’s. He was also memorable for wearing an eyepatch, the result of a war injury. Aside from serving his country, his other passions included farming and archeology.

Prior to WWII, Dayan became involved with the Haganah– an Israeli intelligence agency. Through the 1940’s, Czechoslovakia provided arms to the Israelis, but in the 1950’s, it did so for Israel’s then-enemy, Egypt. Dayan was responsible for overseeing troop deployments and was consulted on the allocation of resources and appointments of other military leaders in various wars through the decades.

Read the book to learn, aside from Dayan’s life, about: the author and her family members; her experiences growing up with a father who exerted a huge influence on her homeland’s history; and how this ironically afforded her opportunities (and made her want) to live abroad in adulthood.

Mama Koko

The Book of the Week is “Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen” by Lisa J. Shannon, published in 2015.

This ebook is the product of the author’s interview of two generations of a family from the Congo, starting in the 1970’s (the anecdotes’ time frames are rarely specified). The book documents the fates of many of its members– victims of the ongoing system of violence, perpetrated by a political group called the LRA, which had migrated from Uganda. Shannon starts with biographical information on the matriarch of the family, Mama Koko.

Mama Koko’s elders arranged her marriage for her when she was a baby: “…she was called out of class at the age of twelve. Her classmates and the nuns watched as the young beauty in her Catholic-school uniform arrived in the mission’s courtyard garden to find a strange old man waiting for her, introducing himself as her husband.” She was rebellious and rejected him. She put off a life of servitude for three years in order to finish the fifth grade; after which, the priest finally pressured her, under threat of death, to accept her fate.

The culture in the Congo is to ask “Who is your family?” the same way Americans ask “What do you do?” when meeting people. Their livelihoods were mostly agricultural– growing cotton, coffee, cassava, rice and peanuts. The core family of the story ran a plantation and a shop. The people also practiced polygamy. “Andre and his only brother Alexander were both sons of Game, who had four wives and forty-three children.”

The author suffered an attack of conscience, fantasizing about adopting a deprived child when she personally visited Congo. She saw for herself the life-threatening conditions under which the Congolese lived every day, even in geographic areas of relative calm. “I’d heard the snarky comments back home about white-savior complexes; I understood I was trampling too far into cultural sensitivities.”

Read this depressing ebook to learn the various ways people died (most of the time shot on the spot) at the hands of ruthless child-soldiers who themselves were tortured and drugged to make them kill villagers. One bright spot was that an American Peace Corps volunteer was able to provide a better life for one female in the family. They moved to the United States.

Another Man’s War

The Book of the Week is “Another Man’s War” by Barnaby Phillips, published in 2014. This ebook recounts two facets of WWII: how Africans– two in particular– fought for Great Britain, and why Great Britain fought in Africa, India and Burma.

The two teenagers, Isaac and David, from Nigeria and Sierra Leone respectively, were seeking adventure and thought they might increase their chances for a better future if they left their home villages. They would be provided with clothing and adequate food, be taught practical skills, and be paid, too.

Britain felt the need to protect the resources it was exploiting, such as food, rubber and gold, along the coastal cities (Freetown, Lagos, Cape Town and Mombasa) of its African colonies. Cape and Suez shipping routes needed to be retained. Burma, another British colony, had oil, rubber, tin and rice. Northern Burma was a crucial trade route for the Chinese, enemies of the Japanese.

In early 1943, Isaac, defying his father (who would have paid his secondary school tuition so that he could become a teacher), “signed up with the Royal West African Frontier Force, swearing an oath of loyalty to King and Empire with a Bible pressed to his forehead. He had become a British soldier.”

Some of the Africans were recruited through deception, such as those from Gambia; or by force, such as those from Nyasaland and Tanganyika. Their families didn’t want them to go.

The United States “had no interest in putting the British Empire back on its feet. And yet the British had become reliant on American logistical support, and especially American aircraft.”

Read the book to learn of Isaac and David’s experiences prior to combat, their incredible story involving the heavy attack on, and retreat of, their military unit behind enemy lines in the Burmese coastal region of Arakan, and the aftermath.

House of Versace

The Book of the Week is “House of Versace” by Deborah Ball, published in 2010. This is the story of how a family and its business recovered from a tragedy.

The two brothers, Santo and Gianni, and a sister, Donatella, started running a high-end clothing design business in the 1970’s. Gianni became the indispensable partner. His talent lay in creating trend-setting clothing and changing the culture of the fashion industry. Donatella recruited celebrities to wear the Versace brand by sending them free products and inviting them to lavish parties.

Around 1990, Versace began to woo female models whose faces appeared on the covers of fashion magazines, rather than women whose whole bodies– supermodels– appeared in photos. The former had to learn how to strut down the runway, however, and convince Versace to pay them big bucks. Appearances in the tabloids, rather than appearances in fashion shows, had previously been their major publicity vehicle. Donatella spared no expense in recruiting them, treating them to luxury travel and clothes. Versace’s competitors had to follow suit.

Read the book to learn how, by 2004, the company had become nearly bankrupt. There were a number of causes; the major one, however, was the aforementioned tragedy.

Handsome Is

The Book of the Week is “Handsome Is” by Harriet Wasserman, published in 1997. It is a memoir of the intertwined careers of the author and Saul Bellow.

Wasserman was Bellow’s literary agent for twenty-five years. She first worked at Russell & Vokening, a literary agency in New York in the 1960’s. Bellow and Bernard Malamud were clients of her bosses, the managing partners. “They were representative of Male Jewish American Novelists at the time when MJANs were the high point of our culture.” In the early 1970’s, the then-big publisher Doubleday offered Bellow “… a two-book contract for two hundred thousand dollars and promised to get [him] a summer house in Spain.” Such were the times.

Wasserman described another aspect of the book industry in her generation. Malamud’s book “The Closing of the American Mind” became a runaway best-seller immediately because a TV, radio and newspaper blitz made it into a blockbuster. “Ten thousand books had been printed, three thousand were in the warehouse, and seven thousand were in the stores.” In 1987, another famous author, Allan Bloom appeared and promoted his book “More Die of Heartbreak” on the TV shows and networks, “…Evans and Novak, Open Mind, ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, CNN…” but the one show on which he appeared at his own insistence, was Oprah.

Read the book to learn of what became of Wasserman’s bosses– the reason she struck out on her own, how an auctioning off of the longhand notes and other preliminary materials of a Bellow novel fared, Bellow’s love life and families, Wasserman’s philosophy on representing an author who wants to retain separate agents for: a) his backlist and foreign rights, and b) his current works; and many other nostalgic scenes of a bygone era in publishing.

Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed the ebook, “A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel” by Pin Ho and Wenguang Huang, published in 2013. This is a story whose details get tiresome after a while, about the downfall of two powerful politicians in China in 2012.

One politician was Wang Lijun. To compensate for his lack of a college education, he added laughable lies to his resume, such as the entry for “a master’s degree in business administration through a one-year correspondence education program at something called ‘California University.” This blogger recalls that that was the fictional school attended by the characters on the late 1980’s American TV show, “90210.”

Wang Lijun also purchased an eMBA from the diploma mill of China Northeastern Finance University. During a ceremony, the president of Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications publicly announced that Wang held a PhD in law. He was frequently called professor, and certain media disseminated propaganda that he was a researcher, author, inventor and fashion designer. His real job was police officer and later, police chief.

In addition to his making myths about himself, Wang used the usual techniques of dictators to amass a tremendous amount of power. Unsurprisingly, “…Wang had gone through fifty-one assistants during his two-year tenure in Chongqing…” He wrongly accused businesses of engaging in organized crime, used illegal surveillance techniques, denied suspects due process in the extreme, and embezzled public funds. You get the picture. Bo Xilai was Wang Lijun’s rival. According to Bo’s intimates, as of March 2012, Bo’s family had larcenously obtained 100 million yuan; in April 2012, that figure was 1 billion yuan.

“Suicide from depression is common among leaders at all levels of the Chinese government” especially when they are “…under investigation on corruption related charges.” Read the book to learn: whether Wang Lijun used this way out, and about the international incident that he staged; what prompted Bo Xilai to act similarly to Richard Nixon in delivering a “Checkers speech;” about the governmental infrastructure in China that provided the means for Wang’s and Bo’s outrageous conduct; and here and there, about Chinese history– such as Mao Tse Tung’s anti-intellectual campaign of May 1966.

The Billionaire’s Apprentice

The Book of the Week is “The Billionaire’s Apprentice” by Anita Raghavan, published in 2013. This ebook describes the investigation into the activities of a few Wall Streeters who were accused of insider trading in the past several years. Most of the accused happened to be of South Asian descent–from  Sri Lanka and India.

One concept the book conveys to readers is that it is unknown how many American securities-industry professionals are benefiting from insider trading, but the people in this book just happened to get caught because there was sufficient evidence against them to prompt the SEC, US Attorney’s office and FBI to go after them, rather than other possible offenders. The departments involved included the SEC’s Market Abuse Unit and the Department of Justice’s Securities and Commodities Fraud Task Force in the legal jurisdiction of the Southern District of New York (covering Manhattan and the Bronx, according to the author).

Another concept is that the investigating organizations and the securities industry are staffed with many people who, during their careers, switch allegiances. They might go from being a prosecutor to being a defense attorney, or from brokerage executive to government regulator, or vice versa. In this book the “old boy network” is alive and well. Arguably, conflicts abound.

Read the book to learn, among other extremes, about wiretapping (not the NSA’s), about one of the accused who “had several phones– at least thirteen– and he used them all” and a $30 million legal bill.

Bonus Post

“The Big Rich” by Bryan Burrough, published in 2009, is a long ebook that details the lives and times of the four Texas families who became extremely wealthy Americans from the oil business in the first half of the twentieth century. “They… became the country’s first shirt-sleeve billionaires… accumulated every toy of their age…” including lavish residences, private jets, boats, fancy cars and politicians (when they got into politics).

The editing of this book is a bit sloppy in spots. Nevertheless, according to this book, oil was first discovered in Texas in a well that was later named Spindletop in Beaumont, around 1901. The abundant quantity of oil found there caused a price drop that prompted a conversion from coal to oil among railroads and steamship companies. Suddenly, thousands of people sought to get rich quickly from oil, similar to the way people wanted in on the California Gold Rush. The nineteen teens saw a proliferation of automobiles requiring oil.

Read the book to learn all the details about the people, places, politics and peripheral issues (such as professional sports) associated with the oil industry in Texas over the next ten decades.