Stalin’s Daughter

The Book of the Week is “Stalin’s Daughter” by Rosemary Sullivan, published in 2015. This biography tells of the life and times of someone who could not escape her father’s shadow. As is pretty well known, Joseph Stalin, of Soviet Georgian origin, was a twentieth-century world leader who committed untold atrocities for decades, during which his country ended up on the winning side of WWII.

Born in February 1926, Stalin’s daughter was given the first name Svetlana, but her last name kept changing later in life, pursuant to her marriages and desire for anonymity. In order to run his brutal dictatorship of her birth country, The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, her father formed a cult– an atmosphere of fear and loathing with himself an object of worship. Soviet citizens who had seen peoples and cultures other than their own developed a split personality because in their hearts, they knew they were living a lie. “Many Red Party members were seen at their dacha but mysteriously disappeared through the 1930’s.”

There was a 23-year age difference between Svetlana’s mother and father. The older one, her father, was 48 when she was born. She, although receiving what was thought to be the best of everything while growing up, was sheltered from many truths, such as the real cause of the death of her mother when she was six. As was common in wealthy families of that era, she got a nanny, governess, and tutors until she started attending school. She was taught German and Russian at an early age.

In the autumn of 1937, Svetlana was assigned a bodyguard, who stuck to her like glue. Her whole life was seen by that bodyguard, and she was forced to terminate relationships with friends whose parents had shown any signs of political leanings adverse to Stalin.

In the late 1930’s, Stalin “purged” his own in-laws– employees of the State Bank. When Svetlana was seventeen and a half years old, she was tested on assembling a rifle as part of the final exam her first year of college. When her son was four years old, he met with his grandfather Stalin for the first time. As an adult, her father had always provided her with luxurious housing– a four-room apartment with a private kitchen, unlike most folks who shared their kitchens and bathrooms and had one-room apartments with plywood separations.

In March 1953, ironically due to a murderous policy perpetrated by Stalin himself– the “Doctor’s Plot”– Stalin failed to receive possible life-saving medical treatment for his arteriosclerosis and later, stroke. Svetlana’s father might have died, but his ghost lived on to sully her reputation for the rest of her life. No matter that she constantly changed her geographic location, her Soviet mentality was evident. Regarding her friendships, she expected 100% loyalty and reciprocity. She adopted a “go big or go home” attitude in hiring former professional mentors and coaches to help her younger daughter learn piano, drawing, swimming and horseback riding. They attended many social events at which her fourteen-year old daughter was a party to numerous customary drinking-toasts, and was a marriage prospect in Tbilisi.

Read the book to get what is probably a more comprehensive picture of the life of Stalin’s daughter in one volume, than any other.

Murder in the Stacks

The Book of the Week is “Murder in the Stacks” by David DeKok, published in 2014.  This book describes the November 1969 murder of Betsy Aardsma– Penn State University graduate student– and provides extensive biographical information on the prime suspect in the case.

In 1969, Penn State was Pennsylvania’s largest public university, with almost 26,000 students. The library where Aardsma died contained the resources required for completing research papers for English classes. It was a sprawling, dark place where anyone off the street could engage in illicit activities involving sex or drugs, and often did. There was no security like there would be nowadays.

Aardsma made serious sacrifices to be somewhat geographically close to her then-boyfriend, a doctor in training. She turned down a Peace Corps tour in Sierra Leone, and applying to medical school, before she decided to become an English teacher instead. She was counseled by her family to get her master’s degree at Penn State because at that time, ironically, there was a serial killer of female students on the loose at the University of Michigan, the school she would have attended.

The murder investigation was a cluster screw-up. The police interviewed thousands of students and professors. The person thought to have committed the crime escaped notice due to the circumstances. If the investigators had done a better job, they would have learned that as a pedophile, he had a history of trouble with the law. However, with regard to past incidents, he got off because the victims or their families failed to call the police, so he had no arrest record for a long time. Additionally, the 1960’s perception of his monstrous behavior was simply a matter of indecency. There was insensitivity with regard to the victims– little thought was given to the traumatic toll of sex crimes on the psyches of the victims.

Read the book to learn many details of the life of the suspect– about whom much more was known than those of the victim– and the outcome of the case.

Francis Bacon

The Book of the Week is “Francis Bacon, The Temper of A Man” by Catherine Drinker Bowen, published in 1963. This biography describes the life and times of an English aristocrat born in 1561.

When Bacon was in his late teens, his father died. His older brother got the lion’s share of the estate. Bacon was an arrogant debtor, always blaming others for his debt. Nevertheless, he continued to maintain the standard of living to which he was accustomed, thanks in part to his uncle– who was immensely wealthy with a global network of contacts and a collection of mansions with hundreds of rooms.

England in the 1570’s was a nation of four million fronted by Queen Elizabeth. It was still seen as a primitive backwater, “…her native tongue rude, her food and wines execrable… No less than eight hundred men, women and children were hanged each year… maybe for picking a pocket or stealing a sheep.” Deaths from disease were rampant.

The church elders at Trinity College, Cambridge– where Bacon started his higher education at thirteen years of age (not uncommon for his generation)– thought more truth could be found in faith than in knowledge.  Bacon, an extremely intellectually curious lad, a budding grand thinker and passionate, prolific writer, disagreed. “Beyond the first row of the House of Commons were men unlike Bacon, nonintellectuals who knew more of hounds, horses and crops than of Latin and philosophy.”

During Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the custom was to arrange a marriage between next door neighbors so as to enlarge the families’ estates and wealth. Bacon finally wed in 1606 to a fourteen year old girl. He was 45.

In 1620, Bacon published a fictional story whose plot mentioned many of the advances in humanity he anticipated, such as the existence of institutions of higher learning that would perform empirical research in the “hard” sicences. It was written in Latin so that all of Europe could read it.

Read the book to learn about the ups and downs of Bacon’s legal career, and how he became one of the first victims of the beginning of reform for England’s political system in the 1620’s.

Rebel Without Applause

The Book of the Week is “Rebel Without Applause” by Jay Landesman, published in 1987. This ebook-autobiography has a few slightly distracting misspellings, but reveals the zeitgeist of Landesman’s generation.

Landesman was born in 1920. The talents of the author and his two brothers and sister differed considerably. Thus, he and his siblings got along well, as they weren’t in competition. However, his mother had control issues, so his parents opened separate antique shops; his mother in St Louis, and his father in Houston.

Landesman became distracted from the family business, and got into magazine publishing in New York. He co-founded “Neurotica”– launched in March 1948.  The publication contained articles of famous writers’ anxieties to which readers could relate. Sex was a taboo topic of discussion but violence was all the rage.

In 1949, Landesman dared to ask for a divorce from his first wife. Describing himself as a “respectable Jewish boy” he later met someone new, who had looked up his family in “Dun & Bradstreet”– the  keeper of the data in those days.

Landesman had two sons with his second wife, Fran. Their wealth allowed them to hire a nanny. “We were like any other ordinary American family enjoying the Ed Sullivan Show. Instead of a six-pack, we shared a couple of joints.”

Read the book to learn of what later transpired with the author’s second wife, about their collaboration on theater productions, his relationship with Lenny Bruce, and where the family moved to and why.

The View From the Vue

The Book of the Week is “The View From the Vue” by Larry Karp, originally published in 1977. This is the personal account of a medical intern at Bellevue Hospital in New York City in the 1960’s. The place had a reputation for treating poor, mentally ill patients, as well as the medical facility to which lazy doctors from other facilities transferred poor patients.

The author related a series of anecdotes of the kinds of patients who frequented the hospital and the experience he received in diagnosing their sometimes then-rare ailments, such as abdominal pregnancy, and common ailments– J-O Rat Paste and lead poisonings. He also related a few interesting factoids of that bygone era, like “In these days, the name cards on the foot of each bed were color-coded according to the religion of the patient. Blue was the Jewish color.”

Read the book to learn of how his wife was allowed to assist him in his work as an unpaid intern of sorts (a situation that would never exist these days), and what transpired when he developed sleep-deprivation syndrome.

Butterfly in the Rain

The Book of the Week is “Butterfly in the Rain, The 1927 Abduction and Murder of Marion Parker” by James L. Neibaur, published in 2016. This short ebook recounts a gruesome crime and the aftermath, that occurred in late 1927 in Los Angeles, California.

The fame of this sensational case was comparable to that of O.J. Simpson’s. However, the newspaper, rather than television, was the medium through which the nation was riveted by the unfolding story. The case involved a child and plenty of controversy. Read the book to learn the details.

Raif Badawi, The Voice of Freedom

The Book of the Week is “Raif Badawi, The Voice of Freedom” by Ensaf Haidar and Andrea C. Hoffman, published in 2015. This ebook tells the story of the problems that can arise in a theocratic monarchy (Saudi Arabia) when people speak their minds and act of their own free will– considered serious crimes, according to certain powerful men who interpret the Quran in a fanatical way.

One indicator that the story revolves around the author, is that a photo of ONLY Haidar (more than a headshot) is on the front cover of this ebook– not a family portrait, or any other scenes.

Infuriating their families is just one of many consequences of the non-conformist behavior of Haidar and her husband; another– causing an international incident in an ongoing saga that has lasted more than a decade.

The story starts when Haidar is in her early 20’s. Her polygamous father runs a financially successful furniture business. He has fifteen children, including the author– one of his younger daughters. The culture precludes any kind of paid work for the females. However, the author is allowed to have a mobile phone, and is encouraged by her much older, widowed sister to try to get a job so she won’t be dependent on her father. He is the ruler of his wives and daughters. If the daughters get married, their own husbands become their rulers. Haidar’s older brothers also hold authority over her.

A certain man who knows her brothers, decides Haidar is the one he wants to marry. But it is against their religion for her to be with, let alone speak with, any male, even on the phone, without a chaperone. The father, or no one, will choose a mate for her. The author and her suitor risk shaming their families and public punishment, when they communicate via mobile phone. They rebel anyway.

The major human-rights cause for which the family is fighting, is freedom of speech. The author’s husband (Raif) starts an Internet forum in which he argues for women’s rights, among other irreverent activities. Yet, “… at home he’s behaving like every other Saudi macho man.” She outwits him– “I hadn’t told Raif anything about the Facebook and Twitter accounts that I ran under a pseudonym.”

Later on, another emotional wrench in the works, is that the author resists telling her three children about why their father is absent from their home. The father tells her not to tell them. Still a product of her culture, she feels the need to obey him. She keeps lying to the children, so when they finally hear the truth– how can they ever trust her?

At any rate, read the book to learn of the trials and tribulations suffered by people who buck their religion-bound culture and government.

Digital Gold

The Book of the Week is “Digital Gold– Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money” by Nathaniel Popper, published in 2015.

This ebook is about Bitcoin, a bookkeeping system used on various websites that distributes, records and stores the value of units called Bitcoins.

The system was created in 2009 by a computer geek who called himself Satoshi Nakamoto. His vision was to create a worldwide means-of-exchange to be used online that would be:

  • a decentralized network of users so that no one central authority has the majority of power over the system– unlike the current situations in the world; in other words, place power in the hands of the users, rather than the economic royalists. (Nevertheless, the irony is that Bitcoin has largely stayed in the realm of the wealthy computer geeks- so there has bascially been redistribution of wealth among the wealthy);
  • created and maintained by users of the system on a consensus basis rather than by the powers-that-be, whose political campaigns are funded by financial institutions, and who stay in power by doing their will;
  • anonymous (like cash– no third parties acquire the information of buyers and sellers);
  • secure (no one point of failure would mean vulnerability for the whole system, plus have protections against identity theft, malware, counterfeiting etc.); and
  • offered at a lesser cost than the current system (avoiding financial institutions with their fees).

However, no utopian vision is perfect. Various tech-startups around the world have been created to store and exchange Bitcoins. That is all well and good. In the last seven years or so, a “remarkably engaged online community” has sprung up to discuss the ideology and all the different issues attendant to the new system. Even the major American financial institutions, fearing competition, have begun to rethink the security of their online dealings, and so have assembled task forces to research how to harness Bitcoin’s loss-prevention technology.

Bitcoins are acquired by computer users who log on to a specific site on the Internet. The users get the virtual “coins” for free, but might have to pay to store them elsewhere to keep them secure.

Bitcoins are more like a security than a means of exchange like cash because:

  • The system distributing Bitcoins is like a combination slot machine and a financial market where instruments are bought and sold, and the value of Bitcoins fluctuates.
  • There’s an inherent unfairness in the system in that– technologically astute users of the system have banded together to create devices that mine Bitcoins at a significantly faster rate than individual users.
  • People can acquire a national currency such as the American dollar in many more ways than they can Bitcoins, most of them honestly– earning, borrowing, begging or stealing.

Anyway, the purpose of Bitcoins as a means of exchange has yet to catch on among mainstream consumers of industrialized countries. There is no sufficiently compelling reason for consumers to start to buy things online with Bitcoins rather than credit cards. “Why should they trust a digital code that had nothing backing it but the computers of some libertarian nerds?”

Argentina is one country where Bitcoins have been useful. The super-speedy inflation of the peso there has meant people must spend their Argentinian money the minute they acquire it or risk the inability to buy anything because they wouldn’t be able to afford it– even food. In China, Bitcoin is popular because the government regulates the yuan exchange rate in order to stem “capital flight” and sell more of its own goods to the world.

As with all human-created systems that rely on the honor system, ALL users must act ethically. One American Bitcoin-processor in particular created a drug-distribution entity called Silk Road that was deemed illegal according to U.S. law.

Another bad actor hacked into a company called Mt. Gox in Japan. All users of that service suffered. “Bitcoin users eventually went to government authorities that Bitcoin had been designed, at least partly, to obviate.”

Besides, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network has been examining the legal aspects of Bitcoin as a virtual currency. Homeland Security is concerned about the fact that Bitcoins could be anonymously sent to terrorist cells overseas.

Read the book to learn much more about the good and bad consequences of the creation of Bitcoin.

The Battle for Home

The Book of the Week is “The Battle For Home” by Marwa Al-Sasouni, published in 2016.

In this short ebook, the author– a Syrian female with a doctorate in architecture– describes how the architecture of Syria relates to the recent history and nature of its people, makes various generalizations about architectural concepts, and provides a little autobiographical background.

The author was born and raised in Homs, the third largest city in Syria. She discusses how it evolved differently from other cities. According to the author of this book’s foreword, the current architecture of Dubai reflects “…a bombastic and profligate fun park of petrol-dollar materialism designed on computers in London for the global rich.” Sasouni writes that if a Syrian is Sunni, Homsi, middle class, prosperous and educated– he’s told what to think, and if he conforms, he’ll be set for life.

Read the book to learn more about the “…atmosphere of laziness, dishonest competition and rampant corruption” that has taken hold of the author’s homeland of late, and how she rebelled against it.

As Luck Would Have It

The Book of the Week is “As Luck Would Have It” by Joshua Piven, published in 2003. This slim volume contains a series of anecdotes on lucky people, whose lives were changed in major ways by good or bad luck. A few generalizations are also provided, on the factors that generated the good luck that allowed lives to be saved in the life-threatening situations– in planes and snow, and led to success in the happy situations– the cases of the lottery winner, hit-song musicians and toy fad identifier. As an aside, this blogger was distracted by the author’s alternating verb tenses between past and present. All the stories are history, and therefore should have been told in the past tense.

Experiences of good luck do not necessarily generate happiness. But the ones that do, meet the human needs of “autonomy, competence, relatedness and self-esteem.” People can better their luck if they are prepared, keep an open mind, keep abreast of information in a given situation, make inquiries to obtain additional information, practice social and professional networking, and trust gut feelings.

Read the book to learn how the above factors were applied in the real-life stories.