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.

Cathedral of the Wild

The Book of the Week is “Cathedral of the Wild” by Boyd Varty, published in 2014. This ebook is the autobiography of a member of the family who owned the Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa.

The Reserve was started by the author’s father and uncle. As is well known, the bushveld of South Africa is fraught with sources of life-threatening injuries and illnesses. In the 1970’s, the founders braved these, plus primitive conditions, to regenerate life in the biosphere on land overgrazed by cattle, to build infrastructure and a business. They felt a close connection to the environment. Their endeavors were ecologically friendly in nature. However, they were trying to introduce a concept before its time, so people criticized their making money from realizing their vision. A “…classic Varty Brothers project… was outlandishly ambitious: vast in scope, freighted with complicated logistics, and therefore irresistible.”

During the author’s childhood, his uncle’s focus on his then-project, such as filming wildlife documentaries or preventing species extinctions, took priority over protecting himself and others from dangers. From a very young age, Varty and his older sister Bron were obligated to assist their uncle with various challenging tasks, such as operating the sound system in the presence of wild animals, shooting a rifle (when necessary), driving a Land Rover, etc. When Varty was about ten, their parents pulled them out of boarding school and assigned them a tutor, Kate. “Bron, Kate and I were crossing the Serengeti [in Tanzania] with about two million wildebeests… hundreds of thousands of gazelles and zebras, travels twelve hundred miles…”

Varty recounts morbidly fascinating stories about an elephant’s charging at the Land Rover (a common occurrence) and various other traumatic episodes in his life. He rambles on a little too long about his and his family’s psychological healing from these occasions when they could easily have died.

Nevertheless, read the book to learn of these episodes, plus about the celebrity who visited the Reserve, and why.

Confessions of a Bad Teacher

The Book of the Week is “Confessions of a Bad Teacher” by John Owens, published in 2013. This ebook is the personal account of a first-year teacher in a New York City “small school” during former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration.

After a successful career in publishing, Owens was trying his hand at teaching. Poor naive soul that he was, he didn’t realize what he was getting into. He encountered “school reform gone terribly wrong.” For, in this day and age, teachers are the scapegoat for all of America’s education problems, especially in low-income districts, like the one where he got a job. From 5am to 10pm daily, the author was working. He was assigned middle school and high school English classes– a total of 125 students, going between two classrooms every day.

The principal of his school made impossible demands on the teachers by putting them in countless “Catch-22” situations. One involved disciplining the students. She left this to the teachers, but when they needed a higher authority to enforce the rules on punishment for serious offenses, the teachers were strongly discouraged from “wasting” administrators’ time.

The unreasonable principal herself punished teachers severely with an “Unsatisfactory” rating if he or she had poor “classroom management.” Getting the students to sit quietly was well-nigh impossible most of the time, for so many reasons. For one, Owens estimated that of the 28 kids in his eighth grade class, about 8 of them had “…learning or behavior or emotional problems.” The parents of some of them did not want them to be labeled in a way that would stigmatize them but allow them to get help. The frequently absent special-education teacher popped into the classroom when she was not doing other tasks deemed of higher priority by the school principal, anyway.

The author was buried in an avalanche of bureaucratic work in addition to his teaching duties. He had to create, duplicate or obey: “…handouts, PowerPoints, and relentless, notebook-filling rules, rubrics, standards, demands and musts…” not to mention an overwhelming amount of required computer-data-entry of numerical scores in various topic-areas, grades, documentation, etc. Furthermore, the principal demanded that the teachers give exams to the students at least every other week. Owens was ordered by the assistant principal to give students a test in a style like the Regents (New York State standardized tests given once or twice a year, in specific subjects) weekly.

To sum it up, like so many other teachers in the United States, Owens found himself playing the “…role of an accomplice in a crazy and corrupt system bent on achieving statistical results, rather than helping students.”  Read the book to learn what happened. Hint: It wasn’t pretty.

Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed the ebook, “Adventures of a Currency Trader” by Rob Booker, published in 2007.

This fable describes fictional characters who were doing currency trading in the early 2000’s at New York City offices. It is about human nature. People are loss-averse and lazy, but love gambling.

It is difficult to say whether readers will actually heed the lessons in the story because it has many unrealistic elements; among them: a) the newbie-trader protagonist had a major mentor who cared about him even though he impulsively disobeyed his mentor from the get-go; b) the protagonist influenced an entire trading floor of seasoned traders; c) the protagonist had access to all the resources that significantly accelerated his learning curve.

The moral is that those who realize they are passionate about currency trading– before they actually start trading with highly leveraged real money– need to understand what they are getting into and do their homework– develop on paper, a trading system that is statistically profitable in the long run.

Read the book to get an overview of currency trading, including the risks, and the mentalities of different traders.

Daring

The Book of the Week is “Daring” by Gail Sheehy, published in 2014. This is the autobiography of an American writer best known for authoring the book Passages in the 1970’s.

Sheehy, a feminist, achieved great success in her life as a wife and mother with a career. That life was dripping with irony; in her 20’s, Sheehy attached herself to a powerful man– Clay Felker– co-founder of New York magazine. He initially provided her with the professional and personal life she would never have had otherwise. They had an on-and-off relationship for sixteen years prior to their marriage, during which she insisted on having a period of separation because she thought she needed time to grow on her own. She took advantage of numerous opportunities and worked hard throughout her life. However, she was still a product of her time, pressured by society to get herself a man in order to feel whole. As an aside, she established a credit history only in her late thirties(!)

Numerous people the author knew were experimenting with “open marriages.” She observed that those relationships usually erupted in “savage jealousies.” She had had a starter marriage with a doctor-in-training prior to meeting Felker. She was in her mid-30’s when she happened to hit upon a subject that struck a nerve– the different stages of life of American women. At the time, only men were examining the life stages of only their own gender.

Nobody showed up at the author’s first signing of Passages at the independent bookstore Brentano’s in Greenwich Village. In spring 1976, months later, the book hit #1 in the New York Times Book Review. Her friends and colleagues got jealous. “Writer friends now saw me as competition; if I was on the bestseller list, I had stolen their rightful slot.”

This book becomes a bit tedious at times, but the author’s descriptions of her life’s events and minutiae are part of her identity as a Northeastern elitist. For decades, she owned a summer house in the Hamptons, with a trampoline, swimming pool, herb garden, wisteria and linden tree. Her spacious New York apartment had a terrace. Through the years, she and her friends ate at fancy restaurants. She employed a maid and a nanny. She attended countless parties for philanthropic causes.

Nevertheless, read the book to learn how Sheehy coped with the passages in her life.

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.”

You Might Remember Me

The Book of the Week is “You Might Remember Me, The Life and Times of Phil Hartman” by Mike Thomas, published in 2014. This biography has a spoiler in the introduction that ruins the suspense of the ending, if the reader is unfamiliar with Hartman’s life.

Hartman was a multi-talented actor. He did eight seasons on Saturday Night Live, voiced various characters on the animated TV show “The Simpsons” and appeared in various movies. A middle child with seven siblings, he had a difficult childhood.  He thought that people are filled with rage, but many do not know how to express it in healthy ways. As an aside (unrelated to Hartman), if the truth makes one angry, one is living a lie.

Read the book to learn of a major incident involving Hartman in the spring of 1998. His brother John kept a hounding press away from the family. His brother Paul explained why “If it bleeds, it leads”: “People are miserable, and when they see more misery than they’re experiencing [themselves], it makes them feel good.”

Behind the Gates of Gomorrah

The Book of the Week is “Behind the Gates of Gomorrah” by Stephen Seager, published in 2014. This book describes the personal experience of a psychiatrist working with violent criminals in a state mental hospital in California. He was the only medical doctor on his unit. The rest of the workers who treated the patients were psychologists and nurses. Some of the patients were faking mental illness because they would rather have been there than in prison. All the patients had taken human lives; some in gruesome ways.

Almost every week, there were emergencies with sirens blaring, usually due to patients’ poor impulse control. The patients would engage in physical fighting with eyeglass stems or other sharp weapons they fashioned themselves, just like in prison. But they hurt hospital employees too, even killed a few through the years. The employees were unarmed (unlike prison guards). The patients fought for their legal rights (like obtaining eyeglasses, which they would accidentally-on-purpose damage so as to get a new source of weapons). According to the book, on the author’s first day at work, he had to have ten stitches in his scalp when he was caught in the middle of a patients’ fight.

There was a tendency on the part of the employees to rationalize their bonding with the patients. It seemed to this blogger that the employees were showing signs of “Stockholm syndrome.” In some ways, the employees were actually captives.

Read the book to learn the answer to the question: “If lots of people are mentally ill, and the great majority are not violent, who then should we be worried about?” [the ones who go on shooting sprees] Here’s a hint:  It’s not those who have autism, OCD, depression or the “foil-hat-wearing, babbling street schizophrenic.”

Mama Koko

The Book of the Week is “Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen” by Lisa J. Shannon, published in 2015.

This ebook is the product of the author’s interview of two generations of a family from the Congo, starting in the 1970’s (the anecdotes’ time frames are rarely specified). The book documents the fates of many of its members– victims of the ongoing system of violence, perpetrated by a political group called the LRA, which had migrated from Uganda. Shannon starts with biographical information on the matriarch of the family, Mama Koko.

Mama Koko’s elders arranged her marriage for her when she was a baby: “…she was called out of class at the age of twelve. Her classmates and the nuns watched as the young beauty in her Catholic-school uniform arrived in the mission’s courtyard garden to find a strange old man waiting for her, introducing himself as her husband.” She was rebellious and rejected him. She put off a life of servitude for three years in order to finish the fifth grade; after which, the priest finally pressured her, under threat of death, to accept her fate.

The culture in the Congo is to ask “Who is your family?” the same way Americans ask “What do you do?” when meeting people. Their livelihoods were mostly agricultural– growing cotton, coffee, cassava, rice and peanuts. The core family of the story ran a plantation and a shop. The people also practiced polygamy. “Andre and his only brother Alexander were both sons of Game, who had four wives and forty-three children.”

The author suffered an attack of conscience, fantasizing about adopting a deprived child when she personally visited Congo. She saw for herself the life-threatening conditions under which the Congolese lived every day, even in geographic areas of relative calm. “I’d heard the snarky comments back home about white-savior complexes; I understood I was trampling too far into cultural sensitivities.”

Read this depressing ebook to learn the various ways people died (most of the time shot on the spot) at the hands of ruthless child-soldiers who themselves were tortured and drugged to make them kill villagers. One bright spot was that an American Peace Corps volunteer was able to provide a better life for one female in the family. They moved to the United States.

Coconut Latitudes – Bonus Post

This blogger read “The Coconut Latitudes” by Rita M. Gardner, published in 2014.

Until her early twenties, the American author was a shrinking violet. Throughout her childhood in the 1940’s and 1950’s, she was verbally abused by her alcoholic father, suffering physical symptoms of anxiety, thinking she had no recourse. This could partly have been due to the culture of her generation and unusual place of residence– the Dominican Republic, to which the father moved her, her mother, and old sister when she was five. Ironically, the father, an electrical engineer-turned coconut farmer, believed in education for his daughters. After a series of traumatic events in her two decades of existence, she says, “It hasn’t occurred to me that I might have a say in how I’m treated.”

Another aspect of the author’s coming-of-age environment was the unstable political situation in the Dominican Republic. At her fifteenth birthday party (1961), her friend told her about five men who were spying on them behind the shrubbery outside their house, in a rural village (like a small town) called Miches, many miles from the capital (currently called Santo Domingo). The teenagers thought it was “special government forces” looking for subversives.

Incidentally, around the same time, under J. Edgar Hoover’s watchful eye, the United States’ own citizens were under scrutiny even though Joseph McCarthy’s systematic effort to purge the country of “Communists” was long over. Nowadays, it is no secret that the latest spying method is electronic surveillance through the World Wide Web. Spies no long have to go through the trouble of planting listening devices in people’s homes. In America, citizens are supposedly “innocent until proven guilty.” When the government is spying on its own citizens through electronic or other means without probable cause, it is treating them as though they are already guilty.

Anyway, the author writes, “I don’t worry that anyone will think Daddy is a Yanqi imperialista or that our family is in any kind of danger. We’ve been here too long.” It is ironic that the author was unconcerned that the government would oppress her family for perceived seditious utterances. For, her father was the one who tyrannically kept her family’s embarrassing incidents secret by suppressing any talk of them and forcing her to lie to anyone who asked about her sister’s whereabouts; she felt internal pressure to lie about her own well-being.

The author’s family was sufficiently “street-smart” to stay mute about politics. There had been stories in the news about deaths of certain people who spoke ill of the dictator who ruled the country. Nevertheless, the family was not harassed for dispensing with attending the Catholic church on Sunday. Other than that one episode of spying and surveillance of their mail, the family had basic freedoms.

The author’s mind was opened to career possibilities when she was living with her friend’s family (which was significantly less dysfunctional than her own) near Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In 1966, the Apollo-Saturn projects and the race to land a man on the moon were creating jobs in the region. At that time, she was in the “eye” of the metaphorical hurricane that was her life. The calm eye “…has the lowest sea-level atmospheric pressure on earth” but it is ephemeral.

Read the book to learn of the author’s sister’s whereabouts, and the numerous “storms” in her life.