Casting With A Fragile Thread

The Book of the Week is “Casting With A Fragile Thread” by Wendy Kann, published in 2007.  This is the engaging memoir of a native white-skinned Rhodesian.  She describes the familial and financial hardships she and her two sisters faced growing up with an absent mother and a risk-taking father, in a nation undergoing radical political change.  In 1980, Rhodesia came to be ruled by Robert Mugabe, a dark-skinned dictator, who allowed the country to be ravaged by his previously oppressed countrymen.  Read the book to learn how the author put her difficulties behind her.

Street Without A Name

The Book of the Week is “Street Without a Name” by Kapka Kassabova, published in 2009.  This autobiography describes the brand of Communism the author experienced as a child in 1970’s and 80’s Sofia, Bulgaria, and the Bulgarian historical events that interested her.

It was an unspoken, dirty little secret that the Communist lifestyle was actually inferior to that of the West. The Bulgarian government told the people that “Politburo comrades were heroes of the anti-Fascist resistance” and “the labor camps were for enemies of the people.”

The author’s mother branded Bulgaria’s leader and his cronies “idiots in brown suits.”  The State oversaw all academic, athletic and musical events, such as a contest called the Olympiads, in which grade-school kids competed in different subjects.  At ten years old, Kassabova was convinced that the West consisted of drug addicts, criminals, capitalists and dreadful child labor, based on one story:  Dickens’ “David Copperfield.”

Her parents both worked in the field of engineering, which placed the family in the middle class. Even so, the family lived in a third-class (out of four classes) concrete neighborhood where blocks were numbered. At the furniture store, there was a three or four-month waiting list for shelves and beds, that only afforded one the opportunity to physically fight for the desired items when the delivery truck arrived at the store in the wee hours.

One time, when the author was eleven, her father met someone from the Netherlands through his work, and invited his family to go “camping” with his own, on the outskirts of Sofia.  The Dutch visitors arrived in a recreational vehicle (RV), while the Bulgarian family had brought a hard-to-obtain, shabby military tent.  (As an aside, the cost of the RV equalled about twenty years’ worth of the author’s mother’s income.)  The Dutch were horrified by the disgusting state of the toilets, and the “rubbish and dogs everywhere.”  The Dutch, in addition to their sparkling new vehicle, brought Western goods, including Gummi Bears, chocolate biscuits, juice in little cartons, and one of ten varieties of potato grown in their home country.

The Kassabovas knew their standard of living under Communism was way overrated by their government but they could not leave Bulgaria– until the Berlin Wall fell.  Even then, they had to complete a ton of bureaucratic paperwork and wait years.  During such time, the author’s mother underwent a stay in the hospital, where there were newspapers instead of sheets, and soap and towels had to be provided by patients themselves.  The author’s father paid a large bribe to the head doctor so as to see the patient emerge from the hospital alive; during Bulgaria’s transition to capitalism, there was more corruption than before– which is saying a lot.

Read the book to learn more about the author’s perspective on her life and birth country.

Lieutenant Birnbaum

The Book of the Week is “Lieutenant Birnbaum: A Soldier’s Story:  Growing Up Jewish in America, Liberating the D.P. Camps, and a New Home in Jerusalem” by Meyer Birnbaum, published in 1994.  This is the autobiography of a memorable character. He rose quickly through the ranks of the U.S. Army during WWII, though not without trouble.

In one incident, he was court-martialed for practicing his religion.  Religious law dictated that Birnbaum wear a yarmulke all the time, including meal times.  An Army rule prohibited the wearing of a “hat” while eating. Birnbaum’s  attorney was incompetent, so Birnbaum defended himself at his hearing.  He argued that a phrase in the oath he took upon his military induction indicated that his religion was more important than his patriotism:  ” …to serve God and my country …”  He was acquitted.

Read the book for further adventures of this clever military officer.

Reckless Courage

The Book of the Week is “Reckless Courage” by William Fuller with Jack Haines, published in 2004.  This book focuses on a family living in Stavanger, Norway during World War II.  It also provides a bit of Norwegian history.  One of the family’s sons, Gunnar, a teenager, risked his life needlessly to irk the enemy in various little ways, out of anger against the German occupation of Norway.

Before getting to the heart of the story, this blogger would like to convey some information about the Norwegian education system (at least during WWII):  Students in a given class had the same teacher for their entire seven years in elementary school.  Almost all of the teachers were men, and teaching was a highly regarded profession.  Most schools started every morning with a Lutheran prayer and hymn.

When Russia invaded Finland in late 1939, Norway sympathized with Finland, as “Norwegians felt a special closeness with the Finns, who they saw as hardy like themselves, not soft and effete like the Danes and Swedes.”  October 1942 saw the Gestapo abducting Norwegian Jews– half of whom were assisted by various good-samaritan groups and individuals, in escaping to Sweden.

On more than one occasion, the aforementioned Gunnar, without being caught, was able to relieve German soldiers of their firearms when they had let down their guard.  There was a close call, however, when an officer at the hotel where Gunnar worked, threatened to search Gunnar’s house.  The teen was shaking in his shoes, as, “In his basement were a machine gun, three pistols, ammunition and a few grenades thrown in for good measure.”  Luckily, the officer did not follow through on the threat.

Read the book for more of Gunnar’s adventures and interesting thoughts on how the course of the war was changed by various incidents.

The Cost of Courage

The Book of the Week is “The Cost of Courage” by Carl Elliott, Sr., published in 1992.  This autobiography describes an American politician who acted on controversial matters in a morally correct way, making him unpopular with Southerners and Conservatives.  In so doing, he hurt his career.

In 1930, Elliott had an easy time getting accepted to college.   For, there was no admissions paperwork at the University of Alabama. Anyone who had a pulse and could pay the tuition in that early-Great-Depression year, was in. Most of the coed school’s students were upper-crust residents of the Black Belt and Birmingham.  Freshmen were required to wear beanies so that they were easily identifiable.

Elliott became an eight-term Alabama Congressman who fought for the civil rights of African Americans.  Another politician whose career was harmed by doing the right thing, was Alabama governor Jim Folsom.  In 1954, he invited African American Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. to the governor’s mansion in Montgomery for a drink.  In 1962, Folsom was pushed out of office by people who voted for (racist) George Wallace.

Read the book to learn the details of Elliott’s heroic but unwise career moves.

Everything is Broken

The Book of the Week is “Everything is Broken” by Emma Larkin (an alias), published in 2010.  This book discusses the actions of the oppressive regime of Burma (aka Myanmar) with respect to Cyclone Nargis, which hit on May 2, 2008.

In addition to describing the nation’s violent history, the author also delves into the religious side of Burma, which includes an active monastic community.  Such community ended up on the losing side of an ugly dispute with soldiers in the summer of 2007.  There had also been a famous 1988 student uprising, which resulted in imprisonment of the dissidents.

Well over 100,000 people died in Cyclone Nargis, which did devastating damage to the Irrawaddy Delta.  Many lives could have been saved had the Burmese government– run by military generals and one general in particular– for almost a week, not refused disaster-relief workers entry into the country. The government also barred the media from the affected areas, blockading road and river access.

Human corpses and cattle clogged the waterways.  The one and only newspaper (a propaganda font) distributed in Burma, reported that people were eating fish and frogs they caught in the rivers, because they were not receiving foodstuffs from aid workers.  A famous comedian who publicly contradicted this account was summarily arrested and imprisoned, in accordance with the government’s practice of draconian censorship.

Although Burma has drawn harsh criticism from international civil rights groups, the generals do not care because their land contains precious minerals, teak and most luckily of all, natural gas and oil deposits.  Other countries of the world such as France, the U.S., Thailand and China are still eager to do business with it.

The author writes of the Burmese authorities, “The facts were already bloated with hindsight, overblown by rumor and sound bites from the more sensational elements of the international media and activist groups, and underplayed by the regime’s own meticulously archived propaganda machine.”  People in developed nations might feel this quote depicts their situation on a local level, even given the standard of living and freer political climate in their communities.

Nevertheless, there is a slight difference between this very common tale in third-world countries– oppressive military governments ruthlessly let people die in natural disasters, or persecute citizens at the slightest provocation; developed countries’ governments might impose education reforms that worsen conditions, or violate the civil rights of a particular group of people so that they lose their livelihoods, but violence and murder are extremely rare.

A book like this allows a reader to put things in perspective, and feel grateful that he or she does not live in Burma.

Crossing the River

The Book of the Week is “Crossing the River” by Victor Grossman, published in 2003.

This autobiography tells how an American defected to East Germany during the Korean War. A very unusual story, indeed. He was brainwashed by both his parents, intellectual Communists, in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

He tried to rationalize his penchant for suffering by saying that the cruel and unusual goings-on in the US actually provided a worse way for people to live, than the East Germans did. In the early 1950’s, the McCarthy era was in full swing, the US had ousted the leader of Guatemala in a bloody affair, and instigated another shameful coup in Iran; there was the ugliness at Peekskill, there was still segregation; besides, the Soviets had helped defeat Germany. Comrade Stalin was a god, to the Communists.

The author argues that in 1960, the quality of life wasn’t so bad in East Germany. Yes, there were severe food shortages, but everyone’s medical care was paid for, and everyone had a job or was provided with necessities for survival, and assistance for finding a job, according to his own need. Of course, the people also spent needless hours every day manually washing clothes and dishes, lighting a fire in the pot-bellied stove, and patiently waiting for unreliable public transportation, or hoofing it, because they couldn’t afford a car.

In the early 1960’s, the East Germans kept trying to attack the integrity of the Federal Republic (of West Germany) (with good reason) by publicizing the fact that a large number of ex-Nazis (who had committed unspeakable war crimes) were working in civil service– as judges, even(!) and in the West’s armed forces. It was somewhat alarming that so many Nazis were helping Germany to re-arm, and becoming a pivotal force in NATO.

In the late 1980s, the East German leaders staged a few media incidents, trying to continue to isolate the “German Democratic Republic” (the misnomer that was East Germany) clinging to power, believing that only they could be keepers of the flame. The East Germans, like the Chinese, were into self-criticism circles. They had “tutors”, who bullied doubters and discouraged free-thinkers, cutting them down with questions such as, “Are you questioning the collective judgment of experienced Marxist leaders, able to assess factors far better than any individual? Could you be more correct than they are?”

It was a traumatic time for the author when Khrushchev revealed Stalin’s crimes in the mid 1950’s. But the author continued to rationalize that his adopted homeland was still a better place to live than imperialist America. It’s an excellent book anyway.