The Open Door

The Book of the Week is “The Open Door” — David R. Godine, Publisher, 1989.  This slim volume is a compilation of autobiographical passages of 29 writers recounting the context of their enjoyment of reading. Those mostly male English and American writers range from Ben Franklin to Stephen King.

W.B. Yeats relates that at the start of his formal education, his father discouraged him from reading “boys’ papers.” The reason given was that “… a paper, by its very nature, had to be made for the average boy or man and so could not but thwart one’s growth.”

Eudora Welty wanted to be poor, as were the characters in “Four Little Peppers.” She explains, “Trouble, the backbone of literature, was still to me the original property of the fairy tale, and as long as there was plenty of trouble for everybody and the rewards for it were falling in the right spots, reading was all smooth sailing.”

To the Heart of the Nile

The Book of the Week is “To the Heart of the Nile” by Pat Shipman, published in 2004. In the 1840’s, when a little girl, later named Florence, was orphaned by revolution in the land that is now Hungary, she was sent to live in a harem.

By a strange twist of fate, Florence, with an Englishman, Sam, (with a retinue of servants) ended up going on expeditions in what is now Egypt and the Sudan to find the sources of the Nile, and stop the slave trade. They “made detailed observations on the climate, the terrain, the people, the animals and the plants,” all the while braving disease, near-starvation and tribal warfare. That last life-threatening condition required delicate negotiations with a tribal chief.

On one occasion, Sam gamed the situation correctly. He boldly “ordered his headman to raise the Union Jack… Sam asked these delegates [officials of the enemy tribes] how they dared to invade a country [the Sudan] under the protection of the British flag.” They obeyed his order to evacuate the area. The tribal chief who was allied with Sam “was awestruck by the power of Sam’s magical flag and… rewarded Sam with huge quantities of [smuggled] ivory.”

Sam refused to accept the ivory, as he was disinclined to tarnish his reputation with criminal and morally reprehensible pursuits.  He was more interested in exploration and annexing the Sudan for the United Kingdom.

Read the book to the learn the outcomes of Sam’s and Florence’s adventures.

Burned Bridge

The Book of the Week is “Burned Bridge, How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain” by Edith Sheffer, published in 2011.

This book discusses the history of the splitting of Germany post-World War II, and its effects on Neustadt, a Western border city, and Sonneberg, an Eastern border city, both connected by Burned Bridge. Pursuant to agreements made at Yalta, “… on July 1, 1945, Soviet forces entered Sonneberg, and the U.S. Army withdrew into Neustadt… bighearted Americans distributing gum and chocolate from tanks with images of brutish Soviet solders in tattered horse-drawn wagons.”

In the late 1940’s, frequent border-crossers included black marketeers, undocumented workers, refugees and begging children. In both the East and West, border guards were easily bribed to accept fake travel permits. Families had been rent asunder by the creation of the artificial border.

In 1952, the East German government cracked down on border residents who had made, or were liable to make trouble– activists and frequent border-crossers who might spread the word to Easterners about the Western (capitalist) way of life– by forcing Easterners to move farther east, away from the border. Through the 1950’s, the East German government launched propaganda campaigns to lure former Easterners back to Sonneberg, offering residences, jobs, wages and farms superior to previous ones. Returnees exploited such opportunities, obtaining high-level education for their children as well, in the process. The physical Wall was erected in August 1961.

For about a decade after the war, West Germany flourished economically, after which various untoward events in the 1960’s and 1970’s slowed its growth. There occurred the scandalous Spiegel Affair, violence stemming from student and anti-nuclear protests, terror perpetrated by the Baader-Meinhof gang, oil shocks and anti-immigrant sentiments.

The late 1980’s saw a relaxation of westward travel. Nonetheless, the East German government was resistant to change, and continued to oppress its people through the fall of 1989. In November, dissatisfaction reached critical mass. “Most still recall exactly where they were and what they did when Burned Bridge opened, and cry with joy at the memory.” During reunification of East and West, people who were infrequent border-crossers experienced shock at the stark economic, cultural and social disparities between the two.

Shakespeare’s England

The Book of the Week is “Shakespeare’s England,” a Cassell Caravel Book, by the editors of Horizon Magazine, published in 1964.

This book recounts English cultural, theatrical and royal-family history of the late 1500’s through 1616– the years of the height of Shakespeare’s fame.

In the late 1580’s, Shakespeare’s acting company performed for Queen Elizabeth. At that time, the status of acting company members was divided into three groups: veteran actors who were shareholders in the theater, weekly wage-earning minor-role actors who doubled as stagehands and writers, and young boys who played girls’ and boys’ roles (as females were banned from theater careers).

There were two kinds of playwrights: university-schooled, and non-; the plays of the former were more stiff and serious than that of the latter. All intellectual property rights to a work were transferred from the writer to an acting company upon purchase of a play. Nevertheless, works were pirated all the time, with no adverse consequences for the thief.

Read the book to learn about the events and issues that affected the fame and fortune of Shakespeare and his colleagues– the plague, censorship, a theater fire, playhouse construction, political intrigue and more.

Savage City

The Book of the Week is “Savage City” by T.J. English, published in 2011. This book highlights particular incidents in the lives of three people– two black men and a white police officer– in New York City between 1963 and 1973. All three– George Whitmore, Dhoruba al-Mujahid Bin Wahad, and Bill Phillips– experienced the city’s criminal justice system for prolonged periods, subject to the whims of cultural and political forces.

The author describes the era as one of racism, violence, corruption and injustice. He discusses the activist political group, The Black Panthers, formed in 1967, at length. The white Irish Catholic forces of the law charged the African American group with conspiracy after several ugly incidents.

Another group, the BLA (Black Liberation Army), formed in 1971, was involved in more of same. “It was a bitter harvest of BLA shootings, bombings, and threats against the police…” Autumn 1971 saw the aforementioned Bill Phillips of the NYPD (New York Police Department) turn informant to expose the rampant corruption in his organization.

Read this set of sordid anecdotes to learn the details of the moral bankruptcy and negative traits of human nature that pervaded the aforementioned decade.

The Birthday Party

The Book of the Week is “The Birthday Party” by Stanley N. Alpert, published in 2008. This is the personal account of one man’s harrowing experience of being kidnapped off the streets of New York City by a group of dangerous criminals at their whim. On his birthday.

Alpert’s nerdy personality made him an easy target. Ironically, however, he had the street smarts that allowed him to maximize his chances of survival. Read the book to learn how this suspenseful, emotional cautionary tale played out.

One Of Us

The Book of the Week is “One of Us” by Tom Wicker.  This is a biography of Richard Nixon, published in 1991.

This book discusses aspects of the late president’s psychology as well as his life story and historical events. Nixon had an inferiority complex. He always felt like an outsider in Washington because he was a Duke University, rather than an Ivy League, graduate. He used an apt phrase to describe the focus one needs to succeed in a law career: a “lead butt” that can sit in a chair for hours, reading.

Despite his shameful crimes and resignation, he still took some actions that benefited the United States, the most well known of which was “opening up” China.

One More Time

The Book of the Week is “One More Time” by Carol Burnett, published in 1986.  This is an emotionally rich, memorable autobiography. Its author had a tough childhood, as the older daughter of two alcoholic parents. Raised by her grandmother on welfare in Texas, she enjoyed a few happy times nevertheless.

Burnett experienced excellent luck on days when it was pouring rain. For example, on a rainy day, a benefactor appeared in her life to allow her to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. He provided her with two years’ worth of funding in which to succeed. She met the deadline.

Read the book to learn how her life experiences provided tons of material for her comedic TV show.

The Fall of the House of Forbes

The Book of the Week is “The Fall of the House of Forbes” by Stewart Pinkerton, published in 2011.  This volume describes the changes that occurred at Forbes (a magazine publisher named after its founding family) in the post-Malcolm Forbes era.

Malcolm, a major shareholder of the company, spent extravagantly on a collection of mansions, art, and vehicles that traversed land, sea and air; not to mention business parties. He had managed the company until his mysterious death in 1991. Thereafter, his successors imposed frugality. Nevertheless, Forbes was unprepared for the new realities of the internet.

When the magazine was finally forced to restructure its operations by instituting massive layoffs and integrating print and Web, it had already been plagued for years by arrogant and petty editors, office politics, high turnover and numerous inefficiencies. While the magazine previously had a sterling reputation for meticulous fact-checking, it has jettisoned quality for dumbed-down content and Web traffic at any cost.

It is thought that the way to achieve profitability on the Web is to foster interactivity with readers.  The Huffington Post does so, but has yet to make any money. Furthermore, research has shown that people have much poorer focus and information retention when they are reading news on a backlit screen, than when reading news in print form.

Read the book to learn the history of the Forbes family, and the people and bad choices behind the collapse of this media empire.