Street Without A Name

The Book of the Week is “Street Without a Name” by Kapka Kassabova, published in 2009.  This autobiography describes the brand of Communism the author experienced as a child in 1970’s and 80’s Sofia, Bulgaria, and the Bulgarian historical events that interested her.

It was an unspoken, dirty little secret that the Communist lifestyle was actually inferior to that of the West. The Bulgarian government told the people that “Politburo comrades were heroes of the anti-Fascist resistance” and “the labor camps were for enemies of the people.”

The author’s mother branded Bulgaria’s leader and his cronies “idiots in brown suits.”  The State oversaw all academic, athletic and musical events, such as a contest called the Olympiads, in which grade-school kids competed in different subjects.  At ten years old, Kassabova was convinced that the West consisted of drug addicts, criminals, capitalists and dreadful child labor, based on one story:  Dickens’ “David Copperfield.”

Her parents both worked in the field of engineering, which placed the family in the middle class. Even so, the family lived in a third-class (out of four classes) concrete neighborhood where blocks were numbered. At the furniture store, there was a three or four-month waiting list for shelves and beds, that only afforded one the opportunity to physically fight for the desired items when the delivery truck arrived at the store in the wee hours.

One time, when the author was eleven, her father met someone from the Netherlands through his work, and invited his family to go “camping” with his own, on the outskirts of Sofia.  The Dutch visitors arrived in a recreational vehicle (RV), while the Bulgarian family had brought a hard-to-obtain, shabby military tent.  (As an aside, the cost of the RV equalled about twenty years’ worth of the author’s mother’s income.)  The Dutch were horrified by the disgusting state of the toilets, and the “rubbish and dogs everywhere.”  The Dutch, in addition to their sparkling new vehicle, brought Western goods, including Gummi Bears, chocolate biscuits, juice in little cartons, and one of ten varieties of potato grown in their home country.

The Kassabovas knew their standard of living under Communism was way overrated by their government but they could not leave Bulgaria– until the Berlin Wall fell.  Even then, they had to complete a ton of bureaucratic paperwork and wait years.  During such time, the author’s mother underwent a stay in the hospital, where there were newspapers instead of sheets, and soap and towels had to be provided by patients themselves.  The author’s father paid a large bribe to the head doctor so as to see the patient emerge from the hospital alive; during Bulgaria’s transition to capitalism, there was more corruption than before– which is saying a lot.

Read the book to learn more about the author’s perspective on her life and birth country.

Walking After Midnight

The Book of the Week is “Walking After Midnight” by Katy Hutchison, published in 2006.  This book tells the suspenseful story of how a woman channeled her grief over her husband’s death into a public service.  Her twin daughter and son were four years old at the time.  Eventually, she turned the tragedy that had befallen her family into a potentially life-saving endeavor.   She began lecturing teens on alcohol-related behavior; the kind that led to the situation that killed her husband on New Year’s Eve (no, it was not drunk driving).  Read the book to learn the details of this inspiring story.

The Tennis Partner

The Book of the Week is “The Tennis Partner” by Abraham Verghese, published in 1999.  This is the autobiographical account of the relationship between a medical professor (the author) and an intern at a teaching hospital in the United States.  The two play tennis against each other.  At the time, they are each going through traumatic personal problems; the professor, the aftermath of a failed marriage that produced two sons, and the intern, a struggle to beat drug addiction.  Verghese deftly describes these in engaging detail, throws in his perception of the playing styles of various professional tennis players, and recounts some interesting medical cases.

A Purity of Arms

The Book of the Week is “A Purity of Arms” by Aaron Wolf, published in 1989.  This is a personal account of an American citizen’s experiences in the Israeli army.

The author explains the concept behind the name of the book:  a firearm can be a deadly weapon, and it is the belief of many people in the world that God can take a human life.  So when a human uses a firearm, he is acquiring a power of God’s.  Such power is thus sacred, must be respected and used wisely by humans.

Another concept Wolf relates, expressed in the form of the Hebrew phrases “rosh katan (Rohsh kah-TAHN; “small head”)/rosh gadol (Rohsh gah-DOLE; “large head”). The former waits for instructions from a superior, and does nothing more than he is told.  The latter has a proactive, can-do attitude who knows what to do and does it even before he is given any orders.

Wolf describes his military training, and the diverse bunch of fellow soldiers with whom he went on non-stop, days-long, grueling marches.  One such serious hike was especially painful for him.  Unbenownst to him, his leg was broken.  Obviously, he survived to tell the tale.

Read the book to learn more about a military in which every citizen must serve; for, Israel is a country whose very survival is always in danger.

Safe Harbor, A Murder in Nantucket

The Book of the Week is “Safe Harbor, A Murder in Nantucket” by Brian McDonald, published in 2006.

This is the story of Thomas Toolan III’s murder of Elizabeth (“Beth”) Lochtefeld in October of 2004.

The killer (Tom) had been an alcoholic since high school.  Before his relationship with Beth, he had had a few other relationships with women in which he was a jealous, abusive liar.  He had worked in the past at an investment bank for a very few years. His parents had bailed him out, every time he got into trouble.

The victim (Beth) had been a workaholic expediter– a party that facilitates the paperwork required to do construction in New York. At 44 years old, she was still looking for a lifelong mate. It was unclear why she couldn’t find a permanent significant other– she was pretty, fit, brainy, well-traveled, very social, and wealthy.

Read the book to get to know the characters better, and learn the details of the murder.

Testament of Youth

The Book of the Week is “Testament of Youth” by Vera Brittain, published in 1934.  This is the depressing memoir of a young woman in England whose hardships were typical for her generation.

Ms. Brittain wrote, “…To me and my contemporaries, with our cheerful confidence in the benignity of fate, War was something remote, unimaginable, its monstrous destructions and distresses safely shut up… between the covers of history books.”  She was in her late teens at the outbreak of WWI.  She had just started college a couple of years after graduating high school, at one of the women’s schools of Oxford University.  Ms. Brittain would not have been afforded such opportunity had a scholarly friend of her family not convinced her sexist father that educating females was worthwhile. Nevertheless, the entrance exams were rigorous. A glutton for punishment, she decided to major in history– about which she knew little– rather than English literature, which she knew well.

Then, to do her part for the war effort, Ms. Brittain took a leave of absence from school to nurse wounded soldiers for the Red Cross. She spent a total of three years in England and France performing unpleasant tasks, witnessing gruesome injuries and dying men, and chafing at orders of the bitchy matrons who were her bosses.  Her younger brother had also just begun school, when he and three of his school chums were called up to fight in the war.  One of the three became her boyfriend; she was friends with the other two as well.  All parties exchanged numerous letters, detailing their activities, and expressing their fears, hopes and opinions about the war.  In the next two years, all four young men died.

Ms. Brittain remarked, “No doubt the post-war generation was wise in its assumption that patriotism had ‘nothing to it,’ and we pre-war lot were just poor boobs for letting ourselves be kidded into thinking that it had.  The smashing-up of one’s youth seemed rather a heavy price to pay for making the mistake, but fools always did come in for a worse punishment than knaves; we knew that now.”

The author described progress on women’s rights issues, as she considered herself a feminist.  In the early 1920’s, England granted the vote to women over thirty years of age, because there was a disproportionate number of women in the voting population after the war.  Oxford began granting degrees to women, rather than simply allowing them to take classes to further their education.  Postwar, Ms. Brittain was no longer considered rude when she uttered the words “pregnancy” and “prostitution” in public (as opposed to “a certain condition” and “a certain profession.”) She and her friends freely discussed sodomy, lesbianism and venereal disease.

After Ms. Brittain finished her degree, she did some lecturing, teaching and publishing, and went to work for the League of Nations.  She took her time deciding whether to marry a man who had pursued her.  She was thinking, if she had a child, she would hope to a have a daughter, because a son might go to war and die.

Colors of the Mountain

The Book of the Week is “Colors of the Mountain” by Da Chen.  This is the autobiography of someone growing up in China during the middle and later years of the Cultural Revolution under Communist dictator Mao Tse Tung.  Since Da, born in 1962, was the youngest of several brothers and sisters at a time when Mao was reversing China’s education policy toward one of competitive college-entrance exams, Da became his family’s only hope for a better life.

The siblings unfortunately, were doomed to a life of backbreaking toil on the farm, under Mao’s reign.  Da, on the other hand, was provided with the opportunity to take three days of the extremely extensive “regurgitation” exams.  He rose to the occasion, studying with his friend for hours and hours every day for months on end.

His friend, who smoked big, fat cigars, was a nonchalant sort under much less pressure. He could afford to goof off. For, the friend’s family owned a lucrative tobacco farm, and failing his exam would mean merely entering the family business, which was not such a bad consequence.  That is what happened to the friend.

Da’s hard work paid off.  He achieved the highest test scores in his region, an exceptional triumph, since he was from a rural area where students received test preparation inferior to that in urban areas.  He had heard that learning English was very important if one wanted to study abroad.  However, it was rumored to be very difficult for Chinese people to learn to pronounce English with an accent that was comprehensible to people in English-speaking countries.  But learning English was important for increasing one’s options for a better life. Da was treated to a tuition-free university education and learned English.  Read the book to learn how he fared thereafter.