The Book of the Week is “Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain, published in 2000. This is the eloquent account of the author’s personal experiences as a worker in the restaurant business. He provides anecdotes on the people, their personalities, problems and the kinds of behind-the-scenes activities and events that restaurant patrons do not see. He describes one of his first kitchen jobs he held when he was a brash youth, and how his older coworkers put him in his place. Other forms of entertainment that culinary workers enjoy include the initiation rite of sending the new kitchen help on a fool’s errand, and playing practical jokes on the restaurant manager. Bourdain tells of his employment woes and others’. He also reveals culinary dangers (dirty little secrets) about which diners may not want to know. This book is educational for anyone wishing to enter the restaurant business as well.
The Book of the Week is “Cavalcade of the 1920s and 1930s” edited by Cleveland Amory and Frederic Bradlee, published in 1960. This compilation of Vanity Fair magazine articles showcases two decades of literary luminaries; some of whom were discovered by Frank Crowninshield, the magazine’s editor. Currently, those names, such as P.G. Wodehouse, Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Parker, Amy Lowell, Robert C. Benchley and many others, are fading in the public’s memory. However, they were witty, humorous and entertaining for their era. A perusal of this book today indicates that certain aspects of American life never change. Wodehouse wrote of monies going to the government in an article on family involvement in completing tax returns (which during WWI, were due in March), “…I can only hope that they will not spend it on foolishness and nut sundaes and the movies– but apparently, they needed a few billion dollars, and you and I had to pay for it.”
The Book of the Week is “The Jack Bank, A Memoir of A South African Childhood” by Glen Retief, published in 2011. This autobiography focuses on the author’s realizing his gay identity in a specific generation– as a white South African male in the last years of apartheid. While coming of age, he struggled with not only apartheid, but with “authoritarianism, patriarchy and cycles of violence.”
The author explains that his family was English, rather than Afrikaner. The latter people were militant in nature. He illustrates this point by recounting his experiences at nine and ten years old, of playing war games with his Afrikaner friend, and looking up to his friend’s father, a police officer, as a role model.
At twelve, he was sent to boarding school. As a freshman, he was subjected to extremely brutal bullying. Later, as an upperclassman, he himself did the bullying. He would have undergone this pattern again– in “military basic training, and then the whites-only conscript force… to control forty million black South Africans;” however, Nelson Mandela’s political activities finally succeeded at the tail end of the 1980’s. Prior to that, Retief witnessed examples of the pattern again and again, at university and later in his black boyfriend’s violent, rundown neighborhood.
Read the book to learn more details of what growing up was like under South African apartheid, and what the author did to find his place in the world.
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…”
The Book of the Week is “Leg the Spread” by Cari Lynn, published in 2004. The author interviewed several current and former commodities-futures traders, providing detailed descriptions of their days at the market in Chicago.
Some traders, employees of a broker-dealer, actually stood on the trading floor, yelling and waving paper from the time the market opened at 8am until mid-afternoon. Others traded online. They had good days and bad days.
One female who formerly made a large amount of money on the trading floor before becoming burnt out, had many bad days, both because the job itself was stressful, and because the vast majority of people around her– practically all men– were sexist. In many cases, the way for a female to get ahead besides having super luck, quick math skills and keen intuition about human behavior, was to sleep with one’s (male) boss.
Read the book to get a comprehensive, entertaining picture of the American commodities-futures market in the mid-single-digit 2000’s.
The Book of the Week is “Piaf” by Simone Bertaut, published in 1969. This is Bertaut’s biography of her sister, Edith Piaf. They shared the same father, and both grew up in Paris in the nineteen teens and twenties, with nary a formal education.
Edith spent her early childhood in a brothel whose occupants acted as her surrogate mothers, because her biological mother never cared much for her. However, her father was an artist and street performer, who took her with him as soon as she was old enough to sing so he could earn enough money to survive. Fortunately, she had incredible natural talent. Simone also accompanied her father on his rounds after Edith had left him, but she could only do some simple acrobatics. At fifteen years old, Edith took twelve year old Simone into her employ, and Edith embarked on her quest for fame and fortune as a singer.
The inseparable sisters endured many hardships before Edith achieved fame. Throughout her life, the strong-willed, bossy Edith fell in and out of love with numerous men, some of whom she made into singing stars. Read the book to learn about her antics with them, and other aspects of her edgy existence in the fast lane.
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.
The Book of the Week is “Walking After Midnight” by Katy Hutchison, published in 2006. This book tells the suspenseful story of how a woman channeled her grief over her husband’s death into a public service. Her twin daughter and son were four years old at the time. Eventually, she turned the tragedy that had befallen her family into a potentially life-saving endeavor. She began lecturing teens on alcohol-related behavior; the kind that led to the situation that killed her husband on New Year’s Eve (no, it was not drunk driving). Read the book to learn the details of this inspiring story.
The Book of the Week is “The Tennis Partner” by Abraham Verghese, published in 1999. This is the autobiographical account of the relationship between a medical professor (the author) and an intern at a teaching hospital in the United States. The two play tennis against each other. At the time, they are each going through traumatic personal problems; the professor, the aftermath of a failed marriage that produced two sons, and the intern, a struggle to beat drug addiction. Verghese deftly describes these in engaging detail, throws in his perception of the playing styles of various professional tennis players, and recounts some interesting medical cases.
The Book of the Week is “A Purity of Arms” by Aaron Wolf, published in 1989. This is a personal account of an American citizen’s experiences in the Israeli army.
The author explains the concept behind the name of the book: a firearm can be a deadly weapon, and it is the belief of many people in the world that God can take a human life. So when a human uses a firearm, he is acquiring a power of God’s. Such power is thus sacred, must be respected and used wisely by humans.
Another concept Wolf relates, expressed in the form of the Hebrew phrases “rosh katan (Rohsh kah-TAHN; “small head”)/rosh gadol (Rohsh gah-DOLE; “large head”). The former waits for instructions from a superior, and does nothing more than he is told. The latter has a proactive, can-do attitude who knows what to do and does it even before he is given any orders.
Wolf describes his military training, and the diverse bunch of fellow soldiers with whom he went on non-stop, days-long, grueling marches. One such serious hike was especially painful for him. Unbenownst to him, his leg was broken. Obviously, he survived to tell the tale.
Read the book to learn more about a military in which every citizen must serve; for, Israel is a country whose very survival is always in danger.