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 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.
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.
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.
The Book of the Week is “The Shadow of the Sun” by Ryszard Kapuscinski, originally published in 1998, translated by Klara Glowczewska. This book details the personal observations of a Polish journalist who traveled to various African countries from the late 1950’s through the late 1990’s.
He noted that in 1958 in Ghana, when it came to private citizens’ interaction with their federal government, there was no bureaucracy. If they had a comment or question, they simply personally visited the relevant minister, such as the Minister of Education and Information, and reported their issues. Children started school as young as three. The two types of schools were missionary-run and state-run, but the state still held ultimate power over both, and there was a nationwide curriculum.
The continent of Africa has had its inhabitants and resources exploited for centuries. Colonization gave rise to exportation of slaves, the creation of infrastructure on the land, the importation of weapons, medical advances against tropical diseases and dispersal of goods around the world.
The author remarked that in Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), his “prestigious white status” decreased after he contracted cerebral malaria and then tuberculosis.
There is a common pattern to the way Africa’s military leaders have acquired the maximum resources they possibly can. Once they’ve stolen all they can get from their citizens and made enemies along the way, their next trick is to negotiate a peace treaty and schedule elections. This charade fools the World Bank into lending the leaders money.
The endings of numerous dictatorships have followed a common pattern, too. The new guard attempted to coerce the old leader into revealing his private bank account number. However, the stereotype, which also may be true, is that he engaged in arms and drug sales, and put his money in foreign accounts so that he could draw upon funds when he went into exile.
Because Nigeria is a large nation, in January 1966, the rebels had to invade all five of its regional capitals, taking over the airport, radio station, telephone exchange and post office in each. The sending of outgoing telegrams was banned.
Through the decades, Ethiopia’s governments went from feudal-aristocratic to Marxist-Leninist to federal-democratic.
In 1989, the torture of Liberian dictator Samuel Doe was videotaped and shown continuously in bars and on the wealthy’s VCR’s.
On the whole, Africans are quite superstitious. They believe in witch doctors, herbalists, fortune tellers, exorcists, amulets, talismans, divining rods and magical medicines. The author was assisted in taking advantage of this to deter further frequent burglaries of his residence, by hanging white rooster feathers on his door. “Witches are capable of vengeance, persecution, spreading disease, inflicting pain, sowing death.”
Inhabitants of the Sahara desert regions are paralyzed by drought. The drought in Ethiopia in 1975 closed all establishments, including schools, and caused a lot of deaths in the villages.
African children under 15 accounted for more than half the population in 2001. They have participated in all aspects of adult life in recent decades– fighting in armies, living in refugee camps, toiling on farms, purchasing and selling goods and fetching water for their families.
Very often, lack of repair and maintenance of infrastructure makes for major eyesores on the African landscape. In the 1990’s, the war-damaged Robertsfield airport in Liberia , the largest airport in Africa, was closed, abandoned and left to deteriorate.
The author wrote this book of his African experiences because “The kind of history known in Europe as scholarly and objective can never arise here, because the African past has no documents or records,” only oral stories, passed on from one generation to the next. Time is described as “long ago” “very long ago” and “so long ago that no one remembers.”
The Book of the Week is “True Story” by Michael Finkel. It is an unbelievable story about a journalist (the author) and a criminal. The journalist’s future looked bright at the start of the story.
Finkel was assigned to write an article on slavery in the cocoa plantations of West Africa. He discovered for himself from interviewing hundreds of people, that the said slavery was almost nonexistent. He was under pressure to write an honest story, but also one that would sell. He did not want to denigrate the community of media people who had been reporting the falsehood (knowingly or naively).
If he had written honestly, he would have had to explain that his fellow journalists had been lying. Besides that, the word “slavery” could provoke a boycott of West African cocoa, which would only increase the level of poverty. Half the world’s cocoa comes from West Africa.
Finkel ended up sabotaging himself by concocting a story about one poverty-stricken Malian boy (from Mali), a composite of several boys he had interviewed. He used the real name of one of the boys. When his story was printed, Save the Children complained that the story was inaccurate, and his cover was blown.
The story gets curiouser and curiouser as events unfold.
Around the same time, a criminal was fooling around in Cancun, posing as Finkel. The criminal, Christian Longo, knew only that Finkel was a journalist, and had stolen his name because he liked his stories. He had committed the most heinous crime of all just days before.
Read the book to experience the intrigue.
The Book of the Week is “The Dragon’s Pupils” by Kenneth Starck, published in 1991.
Starck was a professor from the University of Iowa’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He visited China to teach journalism to Chinese graduate students in the 1986-1987 academic year. He detailed his experiences of the culture. Due to the ravages of Communism, the country had resumed its academic degree system only five years prior to his visit. In December, there was student unrest. In the 1980’s, “only 5% of each year’s 10 million high school graduates were admitted to universities. The country had 1,016 universities, about 1 for every million people. In the United States, there were 1,875 colleges, 1 for every 123,000 people.”
The author distributed the book, “The Best of Pulitzer Prize News Writing” (published in 1986) to his students. It had a story from the Korean War of 1950 and a quote that was an ethnic slur on the Chinese. The author lectured on historical context, explaining that at that time, the United States did not have good relations with China.
Under Deng Xiaoping, China was moving toward a more capitalistic society, but the government was resistant, because “There is loosening of family ties and the placing of individual self interest above community interest.” There was still censorship in higher education. Cadres (government officials) were charged with making sure students were appropriately schooled in political and ideological matters. Their titles ranged from ” lecturer” to” professor,” even though they were just party hacks. In May 1988, the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party Central Committee and the Central Committee of the Communist League co-founded the Youth Ideological Educational Research Center.
Read the book for more examples of the disturbing state of affairs in China in the late 1980’s, and her progress (or lack thereof) in terms of freedom of the press and the freedom of her people in general.
The Book of the Week is “Reckless Courage” by William Fuller with Jack Haines, published in 2004. This book focuses on a family living in Stavanger, Norway during World War II. It also provides a bit of Norwegian history. One of the family’s sons, Gunnar, a teenager, risked his life needlessly to irk the enemy in various little ways, out of anger against the German occupation of Norway.
Before getting to the heart of the story, this blogger would like to convey some information about the Norwegian education system (at least during WWII): Students in a given class had the same teacher for their entire seven years in elementary school. Almost all of the teachers were men, and teaching was a highly regarded profession. Most schools started every morning with a Lutheran prayer and hymn.
When Russia invaded Finland in late 1939, Norway sympathized with Finland, as “Norwegians felt a special closeness with the Finns, who they saw as hardy like themselves, not soft and effete like the Danes and Swedes.” October 1942 saw the Gestapo abducting Norwegian Jews– half of whom were assisted by various good-samaritan groups and individuals, in escaping to Sweden.
On more than one occasion, the aforementioned Gunnar, without being caught, was able to relieve German soldiers of their firearms when they had let down their guard. There was a close call, however, when an officer at the hotel where Gunnar worked, threatened to search Gunnar’s house. The teen was shaking in his shoes, as, “In his basement were a machine gun, three pistols, ammunition and a few grenades thrown in for good measure.” Luckily, the officer did not follow through on the threat.
Read the book for more of Gunnar’s adventures and interesting thoughts on how the course of the war was changed by various incidents.
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.
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.