A Backpack, A Bear, Eight Crates of Vodka

The Book of the Week is “A Backpack, A Bear, Eight Crates of Vodka” by Lev Golinkin, published in 2014. This is the autobiography of a Soviet immigrant from a Jewish family fleeing oppression in Kharkov, in the U.S.S.R. in late 1989, when he was eight. They ultimately ended up in the United States, thanks to the assistance of the nonfprofit organization HIAS and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Two atypical aspects of his family’s situation, were that they were kept at the refugee-hotel near Vienna, Austria for six months rather than a few weeks, and were placed in American Midwestern suburbia, in a college town, instead of in an urban area with other Jewish families who spoke Russian.

There were stark cultural differences between what they left behind, and their new world. You can take the people out of Russia, but you can’t take the Russia out of the people. A simple fund-raising call from the local Police Benefit Fund in America evoked panic in Golinkin’s father, because in Russia, all government authorities were to be feared as those who could ruin one’s life arbitrarily. The Soviets so persecuted Jewish families by singling them out for their religion that when the immigrants settled in the United States, they opted to exercise their freedom NOT to practice their religion. The author’s much older sister was warned she was going to be rejected from medical school for no other reason than that her family was Jewish. So she, like her father, was forced to study engineering instead. In sum, their outlook on life was extremely pessimistic, having been beaten down in their native country from the cradle.

In the United States, the quality of life of Golinkin’s family significantly improved. But they had to learn English and how to navigate American financial matters. And his parents had to take low-level jobs, when previously, they had been an engineer and a doctor. They were adamant that their son would be a failure in life if he did not become a doctor.

Read the book to learn how the author’s family adjusted to their new identity as Americans.

Michelle Obama

The Book of the Week is “Michelle Obama” by Peter Slevin, published in 2015. In this biography, the author writes that Michelle possesses the skills, talents and abilities of a politician. She is a great public speaker who appeals to blacks of all economic classes. However, the book also implies that she is looking forward to living a life free of the political spotlight and its attendant stresses.

Initially, the book describes the historical backdrop of Michelle’s generation as much as a general overview of her life, and then, Barack’s political life. She is a rare bird, having risen from humble beginnings in Chicago. She is what Malcolm Gladwell would describe as an “outlier.” She grew up in a loving but strict home environment where her parents had high expectations for her, and believed that success could be achieved through hard work. After receiving an elitist education, she became a community organizer. She was able to raise a family while managing her high-powered career despite her politician-husband’s frequent absences, because she got assistance from relatives and close friends, who also rose to prominence and prosperity.

It will be recalled that during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack was attacked on various fronts– his beliefs, nationality and high school and college lifestyle. His skin color also evoked the controversial debate on the root causes of black disadvantage.

Michelle’s experience in community organizing came in handy on the campaign trail, enabling her to: exchange personal stories, make one-on-one connections, gather a following and inspire voters and volunteers to lead. Nevertheless, by 2012, Michelle had been characterized as elitist, socialist and militant by her critics.

Upon his election, Barack faced a difficult state of affairs. For, “The $236 billion surplus at the end of the Clinton years turned into a $1.3 trillion deficit under George W. Bush, thanks to substantial Republican-inspired tax cuts for the wealthy and a pair of wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, churning along without end.” Not to mention a recession. Meanwhile, as First Lady, Michelle was expected to hire and supervise staff to work in the the White House, where there are 36 rooms, including 11 bedrooms and 16 bathrooms.

Read the book to learn of the three major political initiatives Michelle launched:  Let’s Move, Joining Forces and Reach Higher, and the details of her life and times.

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.

The Snakehead

The Book of the Week is “The Snakehead” by Patrick Radden Keefe, published in 2009. This ebook recounts the details of a pivotal human-smuggling incident involving people of Chinese descent.

In early June 1993, a boat hit a sandbar in Breezy Point in the borough of Queens (New York City) in New York State. Most of its occupants were illegal immigrants originally from China. They were “smuggled” rather than “trafficked” in that they had willingly bribed a “snakehead” to help them move to the United States without identification documents, knowing the risks of their journey full well. Trafficked individuals also have the desire for a better life, but are usually unaware that they will be sold as property.

Organized crime in Chinatown in New York City in the 1980’s was rampant, consisting of not just arrangements to further illegal immigration, but of extortion, gang warfare, conspiracy, hostage-taking and money laundering. “But there was only so much money in shakedowns, burglaries and kidnappings.” The heroin trade carried heavy prison sentences. On the other hand, there was big money (approximately $30,000 for the snakehead per person) in human smuggling and it carried light prison sentences.

At the start of the 1990’s, two major reasons that immigration laws were lenient for political asylum seekers from China were: 1) The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre had reminded the world of oppression in China, and 2) The country had a draconian population-limiting political system, allowing women to bear only one child and thereafter be forced to have an abortion or the men, to have forced sterilization. Another factor that contributed to the arrival of an excessive number of illegals on U.S. shores around 1990 was the fact the the Immigration and Naturalization Service was a poorly treated, underfunded and understaffed agency, that competed with the customs department– whose contraband confiscations made it a political darling.

Read the book to learn: why, around 1990, there was also a shift in the transportation method, routes and entry points for illegal smuggling; which perpetrators got caught and their fates; and the valid arguments on both sides of the debate over the legal and ethical issues on people’s entering a nation without the legal means to do so.

My Beloved World – Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed the ebook “My Beloved World” by Sonia Sotomayor, published in 2013.  This is the autobiography of Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor. Born in 1954, she grew up in a low-income neighborhood in the Bronx, in a close-knit family of Spanish-speaking origin.

Sotomayor’s mother’s philosophy was that whatever one is doing, one should do it well. Sotomayor internalized her advice. She became an overachiever in high school. As a Puerto Rican, she benefited from the growing popularity of “Affirmative Action” policies of the early 1970’s. She attended an Ivy League college. “The Daily Princetonian routinely published letters to the editor lamenting the presence on campus of ‘affirmative action students,’ each one of whom had presumably displaced a far more deserving affluent white male…”

In the United States, Affirmative Action, aka “diversity” is still a very controversial practice in education and employment in which the people in power, some say, out of “white liberal guilt,” are trying to salve their consciences for past discrimination of “minorities”– people who are not of white European origin. Ironically, this can result in reverse discrimination in specific sectors of society– favoring of non-white over white candidates. On the other hand, some ethnic groups comprising the minorities are statistically no longer in the minority of the entire population of candidates; they are now the majority.

Even so, people are becoming more tolerant of the growing popularity of multi-ethnic situations. Sotomayor remains very close with her younger brother, who married, had a daughter and adopted twins, “…Korean boys with Irish names, a Polish (adoptive) mother and a Puerto Rican (adoptive) father– the perfect American family.”

In college, Sotomayor had a lot of catching up to do, linguistically and culturally because she had grown up in a sheltered, limited environment. She writes, “I was enough of a realist not to fret about having missed summer camp, or travel abroad, or a casual familiarity with the language of wealth.” She had had trouble learning to write an essay because syntactically, her writing reflected her first language– Spanish, making for awkward phrasing in English. It was only as an undergraduate that she realized she needed to use the same thesis-oriented communication style she used on her high school debating team, but commit it to paper.

When she was planning her wedding, Sotomayor became a bargain-hunter, but “The prices horrified me, each piece of the fairy tale seeming a bigger rip-off than the last.” She attended Yale Law School and became an Assistant District Attorney to get litigation experience. Her dream was to become a judge. Even at Yale, there had been no program that equipped students with the specific skills and experience for becoming a judge.

When she told her mother about her appointment to her first judgeship, she had to explain that various aspects of the job would be less than exciting. There was no world travel involved. She would get to meet “interesting people,” just not the kinds she would be able to make friends with, as she had in her previous position. On top of that, she would be earning very little money, compared to what she could earn at a big-name law firm.

Read the book to learn the details of Sotomayor’s life triumphs and tragedies, and her opinions on various issues.

Running For My Life

The Book of the Week is “Running For My Life” by Lopez Lomong and Mark Tabb, published in 2012. This suspenseful ebook tells the extraordinary life story of a “lost boy” born in the nation that is now South Sudan.

Lomong’s childhood was cut short when he was snatched from his family at six years old, along with many other boys, by rebel soldiers fighting a years-long civil war between Muslims and Christians in that country. The recruits were called “lost boys” because they were forced into leading violent, empty lives, instead of becoming productive members of society.

Lomong, too, would have been destined to become a soldier or die of disease or starvation were it not for three older children who aided him in escaping from the captives’ camp. In the next chapter of his life, he still suffered extreme hardships, but he had a chance to play soccer, which he enjoyed, and excel at running, at which he was a natural athlete.

Read the book to learn how Lomong achieved tremendous success in various endeavors against impossible odds (considering his initial life circumstances), and what led him to set a goal to help his native people obtain what citizens of industrialized nations take for granted– clean water, health care, education and nutrition.

Jokes My Father Never Taught Me

The Book of the Week is “Jokes My Father Never Taught Me” by Rain Pryor, published in 2006. The author is one of the daughters of the late Richard Pryor, the African American comedian; the only child of a Caucasian, Jewish mother.

During her childhood in the 1970’s, Rain struggled with her three identities:  black, white and Jewish. Her biracial appearance caused people to instantly develop biases, making it easy for them to practice tribal exclusion when it suited them. She found she could dispel the discrimination by making people laugh. Rain writes, “Comedy was about connecting with people in places so personal that it actually made them uncomfortable, and then showing the humor in it.”

Rain’s early-childhood circumstances did not allow her to develop a personal relationship with her father until she turned four. But when she finally did, he shamelessly exposed her to the birds and the bees. She commented that one redeeming trait of her father’s call girls, was that they were honest.

“They weren’t there because they loved my Daddy, and they didn’t pretend to love my Daddy… That was life with Richard Pryor. Sex and violence, puctuated by rare moments of family happiness.” In addition, over decades, her father went through five wives, who bore a total of seven children.

Although as a young child, Rain witnessed the seamy side of the adult world, she enjoyed a sense of love and belonging from a large family on both her parents’ sides. Another lucky aspect of her life was that of her father’s fame and fortune. He could afford to, and did take her and her siblings on various luxurious domestic and international trips.

Read the book to learn more about Rain’s issues with her own ethnicities, her father’s and her own addictions, his multiple sclerosis, and her family crises.

Maybe You Never Cry Again

The Book of the Week is “Maybe You Never Cry Again” by Bernie Mac with Pablo F. Fenjves, published in 2003. This is the autobiography of a man who heeded his mother’s wisdom in achieving his life’s dream of becoming a famous comedian.

Foremost, Mac’s mother taught him to be self-reliant. One of her sayings was, “If you want a helping hand, look at the end of your arm.”

Mac listed the four kinds of standup comedians:  mediocre joke tellers, political commentators, observers of human nature, and tellers of personal stories. He exemplified the fourth kind, making audiences of mostly his own ethnicity laugh by comparing his African American experience to that of Caucasians without mincing words. “The most personal is the most universal.”

For example, he told the reader that, as an adult, he became as excited as a kid in a candy store when he flew in a plane for the first time. He said, “White people wouldn’t understand that feeling. White people get on planes all the time. They born on planes. Same thing with photographs. White people, they got pictures of themselves every minute of their lives. Here’s little Libby…Black people, they lucky to have one or two pictures of themselves.”

Read how Mac put his mother’s teachings to use to get through the trials and tribulations he suffered on the way to stardom.