Little Princes

The Book of the Week is “Little Princes” by Conor Grennan, published in 2010. This the story of a global aid worker who changed many lives for the better over the course of three years.

Initially, Grennan volunteered to be, in essence, a surrogate parent for a couple of months in Nepal in late 2004 at an orphanage, whose name in English is “Little Princes.” However, the children were not truly orphans. Months or years before, a child trafficker had told their parents, living in poverty-stricken rural villages, that if they gave him a lot of money– in some cases, their life savings–  that their children would be fed and clothed well and get an education. Instead, the trafficker sold them into domestic servitude in private homes. Those lucky children had been rescued by a pitifully incomplete patchwork of international child-services organizations or a government official in Kathmandu. “In Nepal, there were no safety nets, no system where all children were cared for in an orderly manner.”

Grennan fell in love with the children at Little Princes, and they, him. He thus returned to be with them after a year’s interlude. He learned of a group that ran homes in Kathmandu, and visited with kids there, too. He, with a fellow volunteer, had a dream to form an organization to have rescued children come to live in their own children’s home.

After the decade-long civil war between the Nepalese monarchy and the Maoists ended, Grennan’s goal became to find the children’s parents and reunite them. In prior years, the Maoists had occupied villages and had been ruthless with people associated with aid organizations. A weeks-long expedition taken on foot in the high-altitude mountains to find the parents, was already fraught with the dangers of death by a fall, illness, marauders, and snow, and even in this day and age– the absence of communications devices (!)

Grennan encountered a traumatic situation, of which he knew not, how many of its like there were. While on an expedition like the one described above, he found out from a postal service worker that the parents of a fourteen-year old kid in a home were alive and well. At some point in the past, the kid had been given their death certificates. Grennan realized the certificates were forged. “Here was a boy who had grown up believing that his entire family was dead… I was struck by how viciously the civil war had torn this country apart.”

Once Grennan started having success reuniting children and parents, the latter were overjoyed to see the former again. “But when they learned that their child was being well taken care of, they were suddenly reluctant to take him or her home. Nepal is a terribly poor country; it is a challenge to support a family.”

Read the book to learn more about the author’s trials, tribulations and triumphs, which include a romantic subplot.

Coronary

The Book of the Week is “Coronary, A True Story of Medicine Gone Awry” by Stephen Klaidman, published in 2007. This book recounts what happens when people are afflicted by certain aspects of human nature:  greed, power-hunger and fear. It is a sensational story, the kind even tabloids could not fabricate.

In the 1990’s and single-digit 2000’s, there was a cardiac surgeon, one Dr. Moon, who exhibited the first two aspects in spades– instilling dire panic in impressionable patients, telling them that their clogged arteries could kill them at any second, and therefore, they had to be scheduled for triple or quadruple bypass surgery within the week. Those patients underwent the rigorous, dangerous, and worst of all– in the vast majority of cases– unnecessary procedure, taking weeks to recover, getting saddled with medical bills.

Dr. Moon loved the control he had over people, and enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. His reputation was sterling, due to word-of-mouth and great public relations (people truly believed he saved their lives). The hospital where he committed his medical malpractice was one owned by the then-disreputable holding company, National Medical Enterprises (which later changed its name to Tenet Healthcare).

Wait, there’s more! There were other greedy parties involved in the story. Three people saw what was really happening, and found a way to capitalize on the situation. They brought a Qui Tam lawsuit against the doctor and his accomplices. This means they accused him of bilking Medicaid and Medicare out of big bucks by billing the federal government for unnecessary surgeries. They were expecting to reap a large reward for reporting the errant doctor.

Read the book to learn the sordid details and outcome of this extreme saga.

McIlhenny’s Gold

The Book of the Week is “McIlhenny’s Gold, How a Louisiana Family Built the Tobasco Empire” by Jeffrey Rothfeder, published in 2007.  This book tells the history of a company that sells hot sauce.

A man named Edmund McIlhenny started the company in southern Louisiana in the 1870’s. He developed a method for making the sauce so that it was very consistent from batch to batch, and its production was not easily imitated. Due to his marketing savvy, the product was soon distributed in California, Nevada, Maine and Florida– “…anyplace with telegraph lines, paved roads and train depots.” His son died in 1949.

One of his son’s sons took over the business. In order to attract a reliable workforce, he created a company village– a compound where white employees both worked and lived (almost rent-free). Black employees commuted, and held difficult, low-level, pepper-picking jobs.

Through secret political machinations, the family was able to get the sole right to use the name “Tobasco” even though competing companies had also been using it during the whole prior time.

When the company, still privately held, was well over a century old, it began to lose its grip on market leadership due to various factors, including American dietary trends, refusal to maximally automate its operations, lack of strong leadership, and growing list of family shareholders.

Read the book to learn of the company’s strengths and weaknesses, and looming opportunities and threats going into the first few years of the 2000’s.

Weekends At Bellvue

The Book of the Week is “Weekends at Bellvue” by Julie Holland, published in 2009. This is a personal account of a psychiatrist who, for nine years, managed weekend admissions to Bellvue, the New York City mental hospital.

Prior to Bellvue, Dr. Holland did her residency at Mount Sinai Hospital in 1992. On her first day, she was put in charge of a patient who believed he was God. Later, she joked to her mother, “…I am starting my medical career at the very top… I am God’s doctor!”

She describes the office politics at Bellvue, why she admitted or released all kinds of patients, including criminals, crime victims, the homeless, addicts, malingerers and people truly in need of help. Colorful vignettes are alternated with details of her personal life. She discusses the growth of her personal relationships– with a close colleague, and with her own psychiatrist, with her eventual life partner, and children. She also relates her fears of being the victim of retaliation by a former employee, and dangerous patients.

There were some extreme stories. At the occurrence of the World Trade Center disaster, a manic Iowa man rode a bus all the way to Ground Zero to help with the recovery effort. There, he was somehow able to get inside and operate a backhoe. He told Dr. Holland, “They need my help.”

Dr. Holland realized she was frustrated that she was able to help patients only temporarily. Bellvue is a revolving door of sorts. Some patients return again and again, because they lack a support system to lift them permanently out of their bad situations, such as addiction, homelessness, or their going off their medication. If Dr. Holland judged that their situations warranted admission to Bellvue, they might get detoxed or restarted on their medication, and/or a comfortable place to sleep in the short term, but once released, would return to the same situation again.

In the end, Dr. Holland left Bellvue because she felt she could be of more assistance to patients in private practice in that she could establish a one-on-one long-term treatment program with them.

The Deserter’s Tale

The Book of the Week is “The Deserter’s Tale” by Joshua Key and Lawrence Hill, published in 2007. This is the intense story of Joshua Key, who was assigned to an outfit of the U.S. Army that he claims committed war crimes in Iraq.

Finding himself in a financially desperate situation with a growing family, Key decided to join the army. A promise was made to him that he would stay stateside. Instead, after training, he was sent to Iraq early on in the Second Gulf War. When posted in Ramadi, his unit was ordered to raid homes of civilians to search for contraband, weapons and signs of terrorists or terrorist activity, but never found any. He writes that all Iraqi males five feet or taller, regardless of age, were detained by his fellow soldiers. He was never told by his commanding officer where they were taken or what happened to them. The females were terrorized by the unnecessarily rough treatment of the males at the hands of the American soldiers. Not only did the soldiers use scare tactics, but they arbitrarily looted and then trashed the civilians’ residences.

Key says he participated in the attacks, but did the minimal damage he could, while still obeying orders. He writes, “My own moral judgement was disintegrating under the pressure of being a soldier, feeling vulnerable, and having no clear enemy to kill in Iraq. We were encouraged to beat up on the enemy… Because we were fearful, sleep-deprived, and jacked up on caffeine, adrenaline, and testosterone, and because our officers constantly reminded us that all Iraqis were our enemies, civilians included, it was tempting to steal, no big deal to punch, and easy to kill… I witnessed numerous incidents of needless brutality and murders of civilians.”

Read the book to learn what transpired when the situation became intolerable for Key.

Savages

The Book of the Week is “Savages” by Joe Kane, published in 1996.  The author describes his encounter with the Huaorani tribe– people living in the Amazon rain forest in Ecuador.

The author recounts an interesting episode in which the natives take a jaunt in a food store– a place they had never visited before, and comments on their strange eating habits. He also writes about the health problems contracted by non-natives in the rain forest.

The bottom line of the book though, is that in the early 1980’s, the Ecuadorian government colluded with American oil companies to keep the natives politically powerless. The country was burdened by staggering international debt and was dependent on oil-related business for half of its revenue. It therefore felt disinclined to share approximately $2 billion in oil revenue with the Huaorani. The author details how the Americans destroyed the land and consequently, the tribe’s ability to survive.

The Seeing Glass

The Book of the Week is “The Seeing Glass” by Jacquelin Gorman, published in 1998. This is the personal account of a woman who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The major symptom she experienced was blindness. This generated an amusing anecdote.

When Gorman was admitted to a hospital in New York City for which she served as an attorney, she found the legalese in the documents she was required to sign, familiar (her husband read them aloud to her). She was the one who had written that legalese, irony of ironies.

Gorman also discusses her family members; most memorable among them, her uncle Ogden Nash, and autistic brother.

Long Walk to Freedom

The Book of the Week is “Long Walk to Freedom” by Nelson Mandela, published in 1994.  This is Mandela’s autobiography.

The author’s father died when he was nine. The author was destined for a dreadful life of poverty under South African apartheid, were it not for a lucky break. His mother had a connection to a wealthy, powerful Xhosa chief, who raised him along with his son. They acquired a quality, British-style education.

Although he was a poor student, Mandela earned an undergraduate degree and eventually, after many years, a law degree. An attorney with whom he worked, advised him against entering politics, as this would cause him to “get in trouble with the authorities, lose all his clients, go bankrupt, break up his family and end up in jail.” Unfortunately, most of the above came to pass.

The South African government employed “divide and conquer” tactics to prevent the Whites, Africans, Indians and Coloureds from uniting and overthrowing White rule. However, there were indications that it cared about world opinion during the decades Mandela was in prison (the 1960’s into the 1990’s). The government could have summarily executed Mandela and his fellow African National Congress party members (as well as committed genocide against all dark-skinned ethnic groups), but it did not.

Instead, it held Stalinesque show trials to inevitably determine that politically active protest groups were dangerous subversives who had to be locked up. It oppressed all non-whites by restricting many aspects of their lives, including voting, employment, place of residence, local travel, curfew hours; even medical care. Mandela’s boyhood was completely absent of physicians. Black ones did not exist in his generation, and going to see a white one was unheard of.

In 1962, Mandela, was living “underground” during a respite from prison. With the help of friends, he found a way to travel internationally to attend political conferences. He recounted that, “…as I was boarding the plane I saw that the pilot was black. I had never seen a black pilot before, and the instant I did I had to quell my panic. How could a black man fly a plane? But a moment later I caught myself: I had fallen into the apartheid mind-set, thinking Africans were inferior and that flying was a white man’s job. I sat back in my seat, and chided myself for such thoughts.”

Mandela experienced conflicting feelings about his Xhosa-tribe origins and English upbringing. “I confess to being something of an Anglophile. When I thought of Western democracy and freedom, I thought of the British parliamentary system. Despite Britain being the home of parliamentary democracy, it was that democracy that had helped to inflict a pernicious system of iniquity on my people. While I abhorred the notion of British imperialism, I never rejected the trappings of British style and manners.”

Too Fat to Fish

The Book of the Week is “Too Fat to Fish” by Artie Lange, published in 2009. This is Lange’s autobiography. He discusses his father’s untimely death, his mother’s saintliness, bouts of cocaine addiction, being a dockworker, career as a television and radio comedian, and the title of his book, among other topics.

He claims his mother, who embodies the idiosyncratic stereotype of an “Italian mama,” was cleaning the house at the crack of dawn on a Saturday, when his friend called regarding a fishing trip that day. His mother got on the phone and aggressively gave the friend an earful about how Lange, who was 23 at the time, was “too fat to fish” and would fall off the boat and drown. She thus would not let him go. Having a bad hangover, he was secretly glad that her concern for him, even if a bit overprotective, gave him an excuse to go back to sleep.