The Best of Times

The Book of the Week is “The Best of Times” by John Dos Passos, originally published in 1966. This ebook is “an informal memoir.”

Dos Passos was sent by his father, a bigwig attorney active in politics and in his community, to a “public school” (what Americans would call private school) in England, and later, boarding school in the United States. His father was of Portuguese extraction, with houses in Sandy Point, MD and Washington D.C. In his youth, Dos Passos communed with nature, capturing small rodents, bullfrogs and garter snakes.

The author became a Darwin Award candidate by choice during WWI– a volunteer ambulance driver in France and Italy, after which he bummed around Spain, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. At times, he lived in New York. “When I found I was late I jumped a bus. In the twenties you could still sit out in the air on top of the [double-decker] Fifth Avenue buses.”

In Dos Passos’ generation, it was easy to make a living as a novelist and playwright. He debated political philosophies with his friends. It is now known which systems of governments are superior to others. But in the hard sciences, “… you could perform your experiment, report the findings. Other men could repeat your experiment to check the results.” The author felt that “developing a humane civilization” involves half communism and half capitalism. This blogger thinks he was conflating politics with economics. He meant “socialism,” not “communism,” because socialism is an economic system, and communism is a political system. But to create a just society, respect for human rights in both governing and allocating resources, is required.

Nevertheless, read the book to learn of the author’s adventures abroad and his experiences hanging around with Ernest Hemingway.

My Crazy Century

The Book of the Week is “My Crazy Century” by Ivan Klima, published in 2010. This ebook discusses the life of a Czech writer from the 1930’s to the tail end of the 1980’s.

Luck was a major factor in why Klima survived WWII. His family was sent to the forced-labor camp in Terezin because his father, all-around handyman and mechanical engineer, was reputed to be an expert who proved useful to the Nazis. His father believed in socialism because “… he realized our society was corrupt, that it bred inequality, injustice, poverty, millions of unemployed, who then put their faith in a madman.”

After the war, there was momentary joy for the winners, but in Europe, people also possessed “… hatred and a longing for revenge.” The author, a teenager, had been conditioned to think of the Red Army as virtuous and the Germans as evil. In high school, he watched weekly newsreels of Comrades Stalin, Gottwald, Slansky, and Zapotocky; plus black marketeers, who were blamed for the consumer-goods shortages in Czechoslovakia. People who were considered war criminals– members of the old regime, traitors and collaborationists– were brought to justice through summary executions.

The author’s family had their house raided several times for subversive materials. Klima got a job with a construction crew, where he got his first taste of socialism in action. “No one could earn more than was necessary for daily subsistence.” The government was stealing the economic surplus from the people. That was why corruption came into play. He was pressured into joining, surprise, surprise, the Communist Party. He said, “I was stunned by how the environment bubbled over with rancor, continual suspicion, malicious gossip, and personnel screening.”

Housing in Czechoslovakia, as in other countries under Soviet influence, was hard to come by. The author, his wife and three-year-old son lived in his mother-in-law’s house for years. There was an average fifteen-year wait for better accommodations (a tiny apartment), unless one was prepared to spend about two years’ salary and join a co-op, or engage in a housing swap with strangers.

Read the book to learn the details of how Klima became a dissident reporter, novelist and playwright, how he: came to be invited to teach in the United States, and became disillusioned with the kibbutzniks in Israel and with the Communist Party; how he “… had been kicked out of all organizations and deprived of the possibility of working anywhere [he] might be able to employ [his] knowledge and skills.”

Who’s Afraid… – Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed the ebook, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?” by Yong Zhao, published in 2014. This repetitive, short ebook consists of an extended essay, mostly critiquing China’s education system. This blogger critiques the ebook below.

But first, a cute quatrain by the 11th-century Chinese poet Su Tung-P’o, translated by Arthur Waley:

Families, when a child is born
Want it to be intelligent.
I, through intelligence,
Having wrecked my whole life,
Only hope the baby will prove
Ignorant and stupid.
Then he will crown a tranquil life
By becoming a Cabinet Minister.

It appears to this blogger that this ebook was rushed to press. Sure, the writing is grammatically correct; there are neither typos nor misspellings. But this ebook has poor structure– the author’s thoughts are disorganized and there are glaring omissions of data that might significantly affect his arguments. The subjects of the chapters appear in an unexpected order. The author has a chapter on Mao Tse Tung, and another one later in the book, arbitrarily.

In a few topic areas, the author cherry-picks the evidence for, and provides only one example for, making his points in arguing his thesis: The United States is heading in the wrong direction in copying China’s education system. I happen to agree. However, there is hardly any mention of the United States at all in the book’s second half.

The portion discussing Coca-Cola and the fact that the author uses various books (secondary sources) as references, raises the issue of credibility of the book. The further from the original source of his references– the less credible it is likely to be, like a game of “telephone.” Supporting evidence for his arguments might be perfectly valid, but are harder to verify than original sources.

The information about Coca-Cola seems irrelevant–unrelated to education, and smacks somewhat of propaganda. According to this ebook, the company was a leader in pushing to lift the ban on the sale of American products (especially its own) in China in 1978, two years after the death of Mao Tse Tung. It started its campaign to do so in 1972, but the book fails to mention there were external forces (like a political one), that might have helped its efforts– President Nixon’s renewal of diplomatic relations with China that year.

The author discusses Mao’s policies extensively in this ebook’s latter half, but fails to mention a major cultural force that affects education– China’s one-child policy. This is a policy which puts extremely draconian restrictions on families to have only one child (preferably a boy) that the government has been imposing for the last few decades in its attempts to stem the country’s population growth. Neglecting to mention this, is a major omission, in that population growth affects school overcrowding and acceptance of students to schools.

Read the book to get the details on what the author does discuss:

  • China’s misleading standardized test scores;
  • the ways the Chinese government’s education policy is detrimental to society;
  • almost halfway through this ebook– Mao’s late 1950’s “Great Leap Forward” campaign to modernize China through scientific and technological innovations; the description reminds this blogger of the Benito-Mussolini-brand of Fascism in 1930’s Italy, a mentality based on nothing but propaganda and ego (minus the imperialism, in China’s case); needless to say, there’s nothing new under the sun;
  • what happens when people are pressured to raise standardized-test scores and rankings either by the imposition of punishment or rewards
  • how an advocate for the worldwide authority, “Program for International Student Assessment” (PISA) that administers a worldwide standardized test, has come to incorrect conclusions about China’s high performance in connection therewith
  • how China’s parents are going to extreme lengths to provide their children with what they perceive to be the best education the children can possibly get because otherwise, the children will be considered failures in life, and
  • how, through the centuries, China has had its vacillations between focusing on authoritarian rule, conformity, hierarchy, rankings, standardized testing and other oppressive social, cultural and educational policies; and relaxation of those policies.

The author apparently believes education is meant to help prepare one for a profession, as he says, “As traditional routine jobs are offshored and automated, we need more and more globally competent, creative, innovative, entrepreneurial citizens– job creators instead of employment minded job seekers.”

Another Man’s War

The Book of the Week is “Another Man’s War” by Barnaby Phillips, published in 2014. This ebook recounts two facets of WWII: how Africans– two in particular– fought for Great Britain, and why Great Britain fought in Africa, India and Burma.

The two teenagers, Isaac and David, from Nigeria and Sierra Leone respectively, were seeking adventure and thought they might increase their chances for a better future if they left their home villages. They would be provided with clothing and adequate food, be taught practical skills, and be paid, too.

Britain felt the need to protect the resources it was exploiting, such as food, rubber and gold, along the coastal cities (Freetown, Lagos, Cape Town and Mombasa) of its African colonies. Cape and Suez shipping routes needed to be retained. Burma, another British colony, had oil, rubber, tin and rice. Northern Burma was a crucial trade route for the Chinese, enemies of the Japanese.

In early 1943, Isaac, defying his father (who would have paid his secondary school tuition so that he could become a teacher), “signed up with the Royal West African Frontier Force, swearing an oath of loyalty to King and Empire with a Bible pressed to his forehead. He had become a British soldier.”

Some of the Africans were recruited through deception, such as those from Gambia; or by force, such as those from Nyasaland and Tanganyika. Their families didn’t want them to go.

The United States “had no interest in putting the British Empire back on its feet. And yet the British had become reliant on American logistical support, and especially American aircraft.”

Read the book to learn of Isaac and David’s experiences prior to combat, their incredible story involving the heavy attack on, and retreat of, their military unit behind enemy lines in the Burmese coastal region of Arakan, and the aftermath.

All Things Possible… – Bonus Post

This blogger read most of the book, “All Things Possible, Setbacks and Success in Politics and Life” by Andrew Cuomo, published in 2014. This career memoir tells how the author has followed in his father’s footsteps, building a life for himself in New York State politics as a bleeding-heart liberal. Of course, the timing of this book’s release coincided with his re-election campaign for governor of New York State.

As a side note, in mid-July 2014, this blogger heard a smear campaign against Cuomo’s opponent, Rob Astorino, in the guise of a short telephone survey. The wording of the questions was quite biased. The questions went something like, “If you knew Astorino was against abortion, and Cuomo favored women’s reproductive rights, would you vote for Astorino, or Cuomo?” and “If you knew Astorino raised property taxes in Westchester…” This blogger was turned off by this dirty campaigning by the Cuomo camp.

It is inappropriate at any time, but completely unnecessary because Cuomo was the incumbent in a race in which there would be extremely low voter turnout. He was destined to be overwhelmingly reelected regardless. That is the kind of seemingly minor slur that could make or break a close election; obviously an aspect of politics Cuomo forgot to mention in this book.

In the mid-1980’s, due to his New-York-State-governor-father’s power and influence, Cuomo enjoyed an immediate meteoric rise in practicing law. Cuomo became a partner at a law firm whose members had close ties to his father. This, after graduating law school and serving as an Assistant District Attorney for only one year. The usual time frame for making partner for the most brilliant Northeastern elitists who billed the most client-hours at New York City’s top law firms at that time was five to eight years, and even then, it was akin to winning the lottery. This makes Cuomo more of an “outlier” (according to Malcolm Gladwell) than Bill Gates, who worked around the clock for years before achieving fame and developing a reputation for expertise in a particular field.

Nevertheless, through the decades, Cuomo has implemented many policy changes and racked up achievements as New York State Attorney General and Governor. According to this book, he is a man of action. In the late 1980’s, he improved the quality of life of thousands of people through “HELP,” the nonprofit organization he created. It built temporary housing for the homeless and oversaw the attempts to improve other aspects of their lives, through drug rehabilitation and job training.

At the start of President Bill Clinton’s first term, Cuomo arrived at Housing and Urban Development. The federal agency had been in disarray for years, having lost billions of dollars to “…fraud, theft, mismanagement and favoritism.” Cuomo helped reallocate funds for a multi-billion dollar program more fairly. He writes that Clinton implemented a policy that applied both Republican and Democratic ideologies, respectively: a) “… the private sector, not government, creates jobs and wealth” and b) the culturally disadvantaged will help themselves if they get government services such as education, training, etc. At HUD, under Cuomo’s leadership, the gravy train ended for slumlords.

Read the book to understand the details of the political and life lessons Cuomo has learned, find out everything you ever wanted to know about his administration’s legislative actions on same-sex marriage and gun control, and his personal values and family life.

The Snakehead

The Book of the Week is “The Snakehead” by Patrick Radden Keefe, published in 2009. This ebook recounts the details of a pivotal human-smuggling incident involving people of Chinese descent.

In early June 1993, a boat hit a sandbar in Breezy Point in the borough of Queens (New York City) in New York State. Most of its occupants were illegal immigrants originally from China. They were “smuggled” rather than “trafficked” in that they had willingly bribed a “snakehead” to help them move to the United States without identification documents, knowing the risks of their journey full well. Trafficked individuals also have the desire for a better life, but are usually unaware that they will be sold as property.

Organized crime in Chinatown in New York City in the 1980’s was rampant, consisting of not just arrangements to further illegal immigration, but of extortion, gang warfare, conspiracy, hostage-taking and money laundering. “But there was only so much money in shakedowns, burglaries and kidnappings.” The heroin trade carried heavy prison sentences. On the other hand, there was big money (approximately $30,000 for the snakehead per person) in human smuggling and it carried light prison sentences.

At the start of the 1990’s, two major reasons that immigration laws were lenient for political asylum seekers from China were: 1) The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre had reminded the world of oppression in China, and 2) The country had a draconian population-limiting political system, allowing women to bear only one child and thereafter be forced to have an abortion or the men, to have forced sterilization. Another factor that contributed to the arrival of an excessive number of illegals on U.S. shores around 1990 was the fact the the Immigration and Naturalization Service was a poorly treated, underfunded and understaffed agency, that competed with the customs department– whose contraband confiscations made it a political darling.

Read the book to learn: why, around 1990, there was also a shift in the transportation method, routes and entry points for illegal smuggling; which perpetrators got caught and their fates; and the valid arguments on both sides of the debate over the legal and ethical issues on people’s entering a nation without the legal means to do so.

The Gentleman From New York – Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed “The Gentleman From New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan” by Godfrey Hodgson, published in 2000.

It is a long biography that details Moynihan’s careers as a Navy officer, sociological researcher and writer, Harvard professor, ambassador to the UN and four-term senator from New York State. Throughout, he received invaluable assistance from his wife, Liz.

In the early 1960’s Moynihan received a quality education, thanks to a scholarship and the GI Bill. He assisted several presidents, starting with JFK, in generating reports on social policy. Lyndon Johnson wanted to right the historic injustices of slavery and segregation. Moynihan was known as a thoughtful, moderately liberal Democrat.

After the Watts riots in the mid-1960’s, “urban studies” were trendy. Moynihan jumped on the bandwagon, teaching and writing about them. Professor James Coleman at Johns Hopkins University led a study of 570,000 children, 60,000 teachers and 4,000 schools, whose results were controversial. It found that student standardized test scores were higher when students were in classes with others who were more affluent and had better home environments than they; facilities and resources across schools were largely the same. A statistically significant number of the students who scored lower were of certain ethnic groups.

In 1966, Moynihan ran for president of the New York City Council, even though he and his family still lived in Washington D.C. In summer 1967, major urban areas in the U.S. saw rioting over Vietnam and racial tensions. Ironically, liberalism was the order of the day in the policies of legislation, political officeholders and reports from the media.

Moynihan shocked his contemporaries when he went to work for the Nixon White House in 1969. He and the president both wanted to implement solutions to American social and economic problems. He stayed a Democrat, though, and opposed the Vietnam War. Moynihan wrote a report that prompted accusations of racism, possibly due to misinterpretation. He suggested that people take a break from discussing racism, allowing the issues “benign neglect.” Amid the furor, a few people theorized that differences in “intelligence” between blacks and whites were due to genetics. He was still needled about his report decades later.

There is a bit of sloppy editing in the section describing the Moynihans’ and Clintons’ relationship in 1993. The latter were trying to push through the bill for national health care in the U.S. Moynihan repeatedly raised the issue that the costs of labor-intensive social programs, such as “… Medicaid doubled in the eight years of the Reagan administration, then doubled again in the eight (sic) years of the Bush administration.” That said, the following page might confuse readers when it says, “… slow the projected rate of growth in the cost of Medicare by one-half after years of double-digit growth…”

Nevertheless, read the book to learn everything you ever wanted to know about Moynihan’s viewpoints and writings.

The Law of the Jungle – Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed the ebook, “The Law of the Jungle” by Paul M. Barrett, published in 2014.  This is the story of a decades-long court case involving oil contamination in the Amazonian rain forest of northeastern Ecuador, to which a number of cliches apply:

Pox on the houses of both the plaintiff and the defendant;

A man is known by the company he keeps; and

When you lie down with dogs, you get fleas.

Starting in 1993, the plaintiff, represented by a greedy, egotistical, loudmouthed, yet shrewd attorney– Steven Donziger– claimed that defendant, Texaco, and then successor Chevron oil company, had caused illness, deaths, and damage to the quality of life of thousands of farmers and tribesmen in Ecuador. The Amazonians were allegedly poisoned by the oil-contaminated streams where they fished, bathed and gathered drinking water. The oil company had established a presence in their villages since 1964, when it forged an agreement with the Ecuadorian government to drill on 3.5 million and later, 4 million acres in the Oriente region.

The author tells a suspenseful, controversial story that reveals valid arguments on both sides. There was evidence of serious disruption of villagers’ lives. This included cancer clusters and other health issues that plagued the Ecuadorians, pollution of the place where they lived, the unintended consequence of violent fighting for jobs and over income inequality between Indians and homesteaders, etc. directly attributable to the activities of, and inept cleanup of, oil that allowed spreading of toxic chemicals by, the petroleum companies. On the other hand, over the years, the economy of the country of Ecuador made great strides due to the companies’ building of, and heavy investment in, transportation infrastructure and the side effects of job creation and good political relations that would not have occurred but for the corporate presence in Ecuador.

According to the author, the plaintiff’s attorney went after “big oil” rather than “… a struggling national government responsible for letting down its people” because big oil had more sex appeal. It could also be that big oil had deeper pockets.

In sum, “The oil pollution suit was not unique. Ecuador’s judiciary had a well-earned reputation for corruption and chaos.”

Read the book to learn of the various sleazy tactics employed by both sides in the dispute, and to get a concise, eloquent summary of the whole story– read the “Conclusions” section of this ebook.