Stalin’s Daughter

The Book of the Week is “Stalin’s Daughter” by Rosemary Sullivan, published in 2015. This biography tells of the life and times of someone who could not escape her father’s shadow. As is pretty well known, Joseph Stalin, of Soviet Georgian origin, was a twentieth-century world leader who committed untold atrocities for decades, during which his country ended up on the winning side of WWII.

Born in February 1926, Stalin’s daughter was given the first name Svetlana, but her last name kept changing later in life, pursuant to her marriages and desire for anonymity. In order to run his brutal dictatorship of her birth country, The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, her father formed a cult– an atmosphere of fear and loathing with himself an object of worship. Soviet citizens who had seen peoples and cultures other than their own developed a split personality because in their hearts, they knew they were living a lie. “Many Red Party members were seen at their dacha but mysteriously disappeared through the 1930’s.”

There was a 23-year age difference between Svetlana’s mother and father. The older one, her father, was 48 when she was born. She, although receiving what was thought to be the best of everything while growing up, was sheltered from many truths, such as the real cause of the death of her mother when she was six. As was common in wealthy families of that era, she got a nanny, governess, and tutors until she started attending school. She was taught German and Russian at an early age.

In the autumn of 1937, Svetlana was assigned a bodyguard, who stuck to her like glue. Her whole life was seen by that bodyguard, and she was forced to terminate relationships with friends whose parents had shown any signs of political leanings adverse to Stalin.

In the late 1930’s, Stalin “purged” his own in-laws– employees of the State Bank. When Svetlana was seventeen and a half years old, she was tested on assembling a rifle as part of the final exam her first year of college. When her son was four years old, he met with his grandfather Stalin for the first time. As an adult, her father had always provided her with luxurious housing– a four-room apartment with a private kitchen, unlike most folks who shared their kitchens and bathrooms and had one-room apartments with plywood separations.

In March 1953, ironically due to a murderous policy perpetrated by Stalin himself– the “Doctor’s Plot”– Stalin failed to receive possible life-saving medical treatment for his arteriosclerosis and later, stroke. Svetlana’s father might have died, but his ghost lived on to sully her reputation for the rest of her life. No matter that she constantly changed her geographic location, her Soviet mentality was evident. Regarding her friendships, she expected 100% loyalty and reciprocity. She adopted a “go big or go home” attitude in hiring former professional mentors and coaches to help her younger daughter learn piano, drawing, swimming and horseback riding. They attended many social events at which her fourteen-year old daughter was a party to numerous customary drinking-toasts, and was a marriage prospect in Tbilisi.

Read the book to get what is probably a more comprehensive picture of the life of Stalin’s daughter in one volume, than any other.

Murder in the Stacks

The Book of the Week is “Murder in the Stacks” by David DeKok, published in 2014.  This book describes the November 1969 murder of Betsy Aardsma– Penn State University graduate student– and provides extensive biographical information on the prime suspect in the case.

In 1969, Penn State was Pennsylvania’s largest public university, with almost 26,000 students. The library where Aardsma died contained the resources required for completing research papers for English classes. It was a sprawling, dark place where anyone off the street could engage in illicit activities involving sex or drugs, and often did. There was no security like there would be nowadays.

Aardsma made serious sacrifices to be somewhat geographically close to her then-boyfriend, a doctor in training. She turned down a Peace Corps tour in Sierra Leone, and applying to medical school, before she decided to become an English teacher instead. She was counseled by her family to get her master’s degree at Penn State because at that time, ironically, there was a serial killer of female students on the loose at the University of Michigan, the school she would have attended.

The murder investigation was a cluster screw-up. The police interviewed thousands of students and professors. The person thought to have committed the crime escaped notice due to the circumstances. If the investigators had done a better job, they would have learned that as a pedophile, he had a history of trouble with the law. However, with regard to past incidents, he got off because the victims or their families failed to call the police, so he had no arrest record for a long time. Additionally, the 1960’s perception of his monstrous behavior was simply a matter of indecency. There was insensitivity with regard to the victims– little thought was given to the traumatic toll of sex crimes on the psyches of the victims.

Read the book to learn many details of the life of the suspect– about whom much more was known than those of the victim– and the outcome of the case.

Butterfly in the Rain

The Book of the Week is “Butterfly in the Rain, The 1927 Abduction and Murder of Marion Parker” by James L. Neibaur, published in 2016. This short ebook recounts a gruesome crime and the aftermath, that occurred in late 1927 in Los Angeles, California.

The fame of this sensational case was comparable to that of O.J. Simpson’s. However, the newspaper, rather than television, was the medium through which the nation was riveted by the unfolding story. The case involved a child and plenty of controversy. Read the book to learn the details.

Fischer Spassky, The New York Times Report

The Book of the Week is “Fischer Spassky, The New York Times Report on the Chess Match of the Century” by Richard Roberts, with Harold Schoenberg, Al Horowitz and Samuel Reshevsky, published in 1972.

This short paperback describes “… Channel 13’s exhaustive television coverage of the Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky match…” which consisted of “analyses, interviews, demonstrations and illuminating asides.”

The world’s top chess players can analyze, say, six moves ahead. Each of those moves, has, say, six possible moves, so they play their moves pursuant to a complex decision tree.

Here is one simple tip to remember about the how the rook moves as opposed to how the bishop moves: The rook moves only from side to side and up and down because it is too wide to move diagonally, whereas the bishop’s slim waist means it moves only diagonally.

The best tournament players are called “grandmasters” and at the book’s writing, there were about ninety of them in the entire world. The international central authority for chess, Federation Internationale des Echecs (FIDE), based in Paris, was started in 1924. At the tail end of the 1960’s, FIDE held an “Interzonal” competition to determine the next chess champion of the world. The Interzonal games were played in places like Palma de Mallorca, Spain; Vancouver, Canada; Seville, Spain; the Canary Islands; Sochi, on the Baltic Sea in Russia and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Boris Spassky, a 32 year old journalist from Leningrad, became the new champion. The champions had been of Soviet origin since 1948.

The title had to be defended every three years. Thus in early 1971, countries started to bid on the prize money, and on the chance to host the final round of championship games. The setting up of the physical environment for play was taken very seriously. There was a 300 pound mahogany table, and “… hand-carved John Jacques & Sons chess pieces that had been flown in from England.” There were about 2,500 spectators at the event.

A soap opera transpired for months prior to the actual competition. That took place in the summer of 1972, between Fischer and Spassky, who both behaved like drama queens in negotiating where and when they would play their approximately twenty-game series. The former was a bit more demanding and exacting about various issues– such as the prize money, and cameras and noise in the room–  as he was paranoid and had extreme control issues. The latter was under tremendous pressure by the Soviet government to win, as a win would show the Soviets’ continuing superiority in the world. Read the book to learn all the details, including who won.

The Battle for Home

The Book of the Week is “The Battle For Home” by Marwa Al-Sasouni, published in 2016.

In this short ebook, the author– a Syrian female with a doctorate in architecture– describes how the architecture of Syria relates to the recent history and nature of its people, makes various generalizations about architectural concepts, and provides a little autobiographical background.

The author was born and raised in Homs, the third largest city in Syria. She discusses how it evolved differently from other cities. According to the author of this book’s foreword, the current architecture of Dubai reflects “…a bombastic and profligate fun park of petrol-dollar materialism designed on computers in London for the global rich.” Sasouni writes that if a Syrian is Sunni, Homsi, middle class, prosperous and educated– he’s told what to think, and if he conforms, he’ll be set for life.

Read the book to learn more about the “…atmosphere of laziness, dishonest competition and rampant corruption” that has taken hold of the author’s homeland of late, and how she rebelled against it.


The Book of the Week is “Fu-Go” by Ross Coen, published in 2014. This book describes the precursor to modern-day drones.

During WWII, extensive research in meteorology, materials science, engineering, physics and statistics was required to send the explosives-laden hot-air balloons about 6,000 miles from Japan to America. In 1942, the Japanese began the campaign with the goals of boosting its own national morale and taking a swipe at its enemy; more specifically, to start forest fires in the Western United States, and create terror among American civilians. This would prompt America to divert its war resources to the quell the distraction. Japan lacked the funds to continue this initiative until late 1944.

The parachutes portion was made of paper from blackberry trees, and pasted together by thousands of middle school and high school girls whose education had lapsed due to the war. They performed unhealthy manual labor at a school gym and a factory. Miraculously, with significant improvement in balloon design, a few hundred of the drones landed in Washington state, Idaho, California and Montana in rural areas. There was controversy over whether to warn civilians of the danger, as this might tell the Japanese how well its campaign was working, and reveal the flaws in its system. American authorities met with the Canadian government, and pressured the media into keeping silent for a long time.

Read the book to learn whether Japan achieved its goals with this seemingly minor yet creative plan of attack.

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.

Gudao, Lone Islet

The Book of the Week is ” Gudao, Lone Islet– The War Years in Shanghai” by Margaret Blair, published in 2008.

This slim volume tells of the WWII traumas suffered by a little girl in a British/Scottish/Chinese household in the International Settlement section of Shanghai, occupied by the Japanese in 1943.

Born in 1936, the author lived in a neighborhood of expatriates originally from the United Kingdom. Her Scottish father was a detective in the British police. The political entity was not a British colony, but was a protectorate subject to British law.

In 1943, the assets and liabilities of the British sector of the International Settlement was sold via a treaty between Great Britain and China, to the Shanghai Municipal Council (i.e., Chiang Kai Shek’s political party, the Nationalists– (non-Communists, but no less corrupt and power hungry). In this way, the British government knowingly allowed its citizens to stay in harm’s way. The Japanese occupied the area that year, and the author and her family became prisoners of war.

Before and during the war, the Japanese took various martial actions that resulted in atrocities and deaths far greater than would the atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the war’s end. The Axis power militarily occupied Korea, Manchuria, and committed the worst brutalities in Nanking, China. There occurred millions of deaths there (according to this book), while Hiroshima and Nagasaki saw only about 120,000 deaths. Additionally, Japanese prisoner of war camps had higher death rates than camps of other nations in the war. The Japanese never did pay reparations for its war crimes.

Prior to the war, Blair lived an idyllic life of social events and familial closeness in the cosmopolitan Shanghai of the 1930’s. All of that was changed radically by the war. Read the book to learn of the traumas caused by the war at large, and the hardships the author faced on a day-to-day basis.


The Book of the Week is “Skyway” by Bill DeYoung, published in 2013. This volume describes the Sunshine Skyway disaster that occurred in May 1980. The Skyway (whose name has since been changed) is a bridge across Tampa Bay that links Pinellas and Manatee counties in Florida.

A large boat was buffeted about by unexpected stormy weather on the fateful day, and the boat’s pilot was unable to negotiate a safe passage to a shipping lane under the bridge.

Read the book to learn exactly what happened, and whose lives were changed forever by the tragedy.

The Broader Way

The Book of the Week is “The Broader Way” by Sumie Seo Mishima, published in 1953. This is a depressing personal account of the Japanese author’s experiences during and after WWII.

The author studied in the United States at a university in the mid-1920’s. She returned to Japan before the war, married a divorced professor who already had four children. A feminist of sorts, she worked near Tokyo as a teacher and tutor, and could afford to hire a maid. Still, a major strike against her included her gender, especially in the workplace. Women had traditionally held the roles of wife, mother and household maintainer in Japan’s economically feudal system– of inheritance and property ownership by males only.

Toward late 1940, in preparing its people for war, the Japanese government politically divided the country into neighborhood associations on a very local level. This imposed egalitarianism on everyone, as all walks of life were lumped together. During the war, civilians were forced to cooperate in distributing rationed food, as, of course, there were severe shortages, reducing some to subsist on only a cornmeal-like substance for the war’s duration. Black markets sprung up everywhere. Teens were sent to work for the war effort– munitions factories and airfield construction sites for the boys, and quarries and opticals for the girls.

American warplanes flew over Tokyo starting in late 1944, and the destruction of the city reached its peak in March 1945. The homes of many people, including eventually, the author, were hit by bombs. The Japanese people had been miserably deceived by the military leaders. They had been told that the imperial armed forces were superior to the enemy. After the war, the Occupation authorities (i.e., the United States, in Japan’s case– for five years) allowed free discussion of different political views, even Communism. A new National Constitution was drafted, that supposedly was to afford equal rights for men and women. This was a radical change from Japan’s previous political system, whereby males had all the power.

Postwar Japan suffered not only starvation, but skyrocketing inflation. Luxuries included beef, chicken, eggs and apples. The Occupation forces supplied canned ham, bacon, sausage and butter in summer 1946. DDT was sprayed liberally on all buildings and gardens, in an attempt to head off pestilence and epidemics. The year 1947 saw entrepreneurial Japanese civilians become street vendors, which quickly fell victim to organized crime. Many women were forced into prostitution to survive, and they protected their territory through cooperating.

In the summer of 1946, the author worked as a translator at the International Military Tribunal, commuting by tramcar, which was stuffed to the gills all the time. After every ride, her clothes were “… ripped and stained with grimy handmarks… The Japanese people had lost all class distinctions and sunk into practically uniform poverty and sordidness.” Young boys sold newspapers and peanuts on the street and bartering for school supplies was not uncommon, for the lucky few who could afford a basic education. Young girls worked as seamstresses. The author’s family was comparatively wealthy, residing in a house, but even they became a multi-generational household when the kids married.

The concept of Communism was in the air, as its propagandists pointed to the Russians as an example of where the political system was working. Impressionable youths traumatized by the war and deprivation were easily persuaded of its benefits.

Read the book to learn a wealth of additional details on the political, cultural and social changes wrought by WWII in Japan.