Indefensible

The Book of the Week is “Indefensible” by David Feige, published in 2006. This is an autobiographical account of a public defender; an attorney who represents indigent people accused of street crime, who were assigned to him by the court.

Feige described his experiences with the people in the criminal justice system in the New York City of the 1990’s. He had to deal with the homeless, mentally ill, addicts, gang members, good people who were wrongly accused– and their family members; judges and other court personnel, and fellow attorneys. There were personality types he saw over and over again– the poorly educated jailed people trapped in the poverty cycle due to their bad choices, bad luck and a series of circumstances out of their control; good, fair judges; and unsympathetic and sadistic judges.

Feige was overworked, underpaid and his anecdotes smacked of the proverb, “Good to know the law, better to know the judge.”

Read this depressing book to get an intimate picture of the inner-city downtrodden, and the difficulties of keeping them from being jailed, even when they are innocent, due to the odds against them.

Life Itself

The Book of the Week is “Life Itself” by Roger Ebert, published in 2011. This is the autobiography of an American movie critic.

Born in the autumn of 1942, Ebert grew up in Urbana, Illinois. He started his journalism career while still in high school. He attended graduate school in the mid-1960’s to avoid the Vietnam draft. It was by chance that he was assigned to write movie reviews, and later on, team up with Gene Siskel.

Ebert inherited a self-destructive tendency from his parents. “After my father was told he had lung cancer, he switched to filter-tip Winstons… She [Ebert’s mother] continued to smoke, and when she was on oxygen would remove the tube to have a cigarette.” Ebert himself became an alcoholic. In 1979, he stopped drinking and joined AA.

The author writes of the culture of his generation. During elementary school summers, “The lives of kids were not fast-tracked…” They would ride their bicycles, mow lawns, open a Kool-Aid stand, or listen to the radio. Movie theaters were one of the few places that had air conditioning.

The author’s take on today’s movie dialogue is: “…the characters have grown stupid… get their laughs by their delivery of four-letter words.”

Read the book to learn the details of Ebert’s life and times.

Mango Elephants in the Sun

The Book of the Week is “Mango Elephants in the Sun” by Susana Herrera, published in 1999. This ebook is the personal account of the author’s two-year experience in the Peace Corps, assigned to the village of Guidiguis, in the northern tip of Cameroon in the early 1990’s. The first chapter was dense with minutiae, but the content became informative and entertaining as the book progressed.

The government of Cameroon was a monarchy, and the local regions had mayors, all of whom drove black Mercedes. The Muslim king had a hundred children. The country also had a president. There was growing anti-government unrest in the southwestern part of the country, that spread to the author’s region toward the end of her stay. The president ordered pay cuts for common working people, while soldiers got raises. The people were “…already angry, complaining that he has rigged the elections.” The different languages and tribes of the people made it difficult for them to put aside their differences to unite to fight against the injustices.

The living conditions were primitive, with no indoor plumbing. Water had to be transferred in buckets a mile distant. Clothes were washed by hand. Other hardships included but were far from limited to: the 125-degree Fahrenheit heat, the risk of contracting life-threatening illnesses such as amoebic dysentery and malaria, termites’ destruction of wooden furniture, elephants’ destruction of millet fields and corn fields in the village, the need for a mosquito net around the bed, and crickets and rats in the residence. But Herrera’s quarters had electricity, and included a refrigerator.

The author taught English to a class of 107 boys and 4 girls of varying ages. She was fluent in French– their common language, but learned a bit of their languages, Fulfulde and Tapouri, too. The village consisted of two tribes, the Foulbe and the Tapouri, which were rivals in hard times, such as drought. The kids had uniforms, but no books. It was common practice for the girls to be subjected to an arranged marriage or a life of farm work, instead of an education. Discipline in school was maintained through beatings, so the students would “respect” the teacher. Herrera meted out punishment by having students kneel on the ground or fetch water instead.

Herrera described her adventures. She developed personal relationships with a few of her students. She taught one girl, Lydie, to ride a bicycle, and was roundly criticized for it. Lydie’s father was angry because Lydie would never own a bike, so the author was giving her false hope, and the result was also wasted effort and time.

Lydie explained her busy life to the author thusly: “My little brothers help me with the water. Then I make beignets for breakfast and bathe the children. After I wash dishes, I’ll start the laundry or, if I have time, begin the midday meal. Then I’ll sweep the compound before going to school.” The boys had no chores. At dawn, they walked to school, and ate the peanuts they reaped along the way. Lydie could look forward to even more work as a grownup: “…cooking, cleaning, washing, planting, harvesting, child care, shopping and water pumping.” In Cameroonian culture, fatness of a wife was a sign of a husband’s love– his ability to provide for her, by selling grain, ironically.

Read the book to find out more about how the author coped with the everyday difficulties, and little triumphs, in a culture and land that was so different from her native California.

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.

An Accidental Sportswriter – Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed “An Accidental Sportswriter” by Robert Lipsyte, published in 2011. This ebook is a career memoir.

Lipsyte covers a range of topics, including how his father was a role model, and the celebrities he’s written about extensively. He covers controversies, including gay athletes and performance-enhancing drugs in baseball.

Lipsyte writes that he spoke to someone who said it was a dirty little secret that such drugs were used extensively among athletes after 1960. The reason it took so long for the practice to be widely disclosed and frowned upon (wink-wink, nod-nod) was that professional athletes’ incomes have skyrocketed in recent years, so there has been resentment of late that some players were making so much money because their abilities got a boost from an unfair advantage.

The author asks, “Why have no [team] owners had to speak in front of Congress? Why have owners been allowed to keep every penny from the big money, big bopping 1990’s, while players have been put through the thresher?” Sometimes the rogues win.

 

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.

Adventures of a Currency Trader – 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.

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.”