From Jailer to Jailed – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “From Jailer to Jailed, My Journey from Correction and Police Commissioner to Inmate #84888-054” by Bernard. B. Kerik, published in 2015.

While he was in prison, Kerik met many people whose punishments he felt were too severe or inappropriate (including his own, of course), given the crimes they’d committed.

The author recommended that all employees of the American justice system “…should have to spend seventy-two hours in the hole [solitary confinement in prison] to see what it’s like.” This way, the law enforcers would understand how psychologically damaging such punishment is, and might impose it with more discretion.

Throughout the book, Kerik repeatedly complained about the “… insane money our country wastes on incarcerating people who could be dealt with, punished in alternative ways.”

In May 2003, to the tune of $120 million compliments of American taxpayers, Kerik went to Iraq with a few tens of other men to try to rebuild a local law enforcement system modeled on the West’s notions of justice meted out for street crime.

Ten years later, Kerik realized it had been an epic fail. Saddam Hussein’s regime had sadistic cops administering torture at the drop of a hat, and Americans’ efforts to change their attitudes, even in the absence of Saddam, were too little and misguided, to put it generously.

In November 2007, thanks to viciously vengeful political enemies, Kerik was charged with sixteen counts’ worth of federal crimes. He felt the judge was outrageously unfair to him.

Read the book to learn of Kerik’s experiences and his well-informed suggestions for how to improve America’s criminal justice system.

Where the Wind Leads/The Fox Hunt

The Books of the Week are “Where the Wind Leads, A Memoir” by Vinh Chung With Tim Downs, published in 2014; “The Fox Hunt, A Refugee’s Memoir of Coming to America” by Mohammed Al Samawi, published in 2018.

Both authors told suspenseful, extremely extreme, long, complicated refugee horror stories, in which they had great good luck on several occasions, and in which certain people took tremendous risks by providing the authors with invaluable assistance that saved their lives.

Born in South Vietnam in December 1975, the author of the former book helpfully, briefly described his homeland’s history three decades before his birth.

The author’s family was Chinese– neither enemies nor friends of the French, Viet Minh, or Khmer Rouge. However, in the 1940’s, the author’s father’s family’s house in the Mekong Delta had been burned to the ground twice, anyway. There was a higher risk of a Viet Minh invasion in the French territory farther north, where the family moved.

As is well known, in the mid-1950’s the French were militarily defeated by the Viet Minh– Communists– and kicked out of their colony Indochina in Southeast Asia. Thereafter, Vietnam was split into north and south. Different ethnic groups migrated toward the side where they numbered in the majority: Communists, north; Catholics and Buddhists, south.

The Khmer Rouge, comprised of Cambodians, continued to ally with the French for decades. By the late 1950’s, the author’s father had become a draft dodger, fleeing to Cambodia to avoid having to fight against the Viet Minh. In 1960, Ho Chi Minh’s militia, the National Liberation Front, was attempting to reunite North and South Vietnam. The Viet Minh was renamed Viet Cong by the United States.

Over decades, the author’s maternal grandmother began a rice-processing business that flourished. By the mid-1970’s, it had a couple of mills, a fleet of trucks, warehouses, etc. It actually benefited from America’s Vietnam War.

The family matriarch hired a matchmaker to marry off her son (the author’s father), born in 1937. He was still sowing his wild oats in his late twenties. Traditionally, both prospects’ families went on a date with the prospects. Then they saw a fortune teller.

The author’s mother was the daughter of a Chinese servant girl of a wealthy household. When she moved to her husband’s house, she had to shop daily for the fast-growing multi-generational household, because they didn’t have a refrigerator. But, since she was expected to become a baby-maker in addition to all of her other responsibilities– she was permitted to hire a teenage nanny with every additional child.

The author’s birth made five. Three more were quickly added, while the author’s father’s mistress had four. The two major philosophies of the family’s culture were filial piety and ancestor worship. Living in the South, their religion combined aspects of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. That changed when the Viet Cong attacked the Mekong Delta. The author’s family’s life was disrupted forever, as their business and real and personal property were stolen.

Due to the Vietnam government’s war against the Chinese that started in February 1979, the ever-growing Chung family became “boat people” in June. Read the book to learn of the family’s ordeal, adjustment to a brand new life, and the author’s explanation for what gave rise to his own extraordinary achievements.

Born in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen in 1986, the author of the latter book helpfully, briefly described the recent history of his homeland.

In 1987, a Sunni-Muslim group named the Muslim Brotherhood formed another group, Hamas. They were supported by Saudi Arabia, southern Yemen, Iraq and another group that formed later, Al Qaeda. Their enemies were Shia Muslims, who are the majority in Iran and northern Yemen.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, the author’s Shia-Muslim family lived in a peaceful neighborhood in Sana’a in northern Yemen, where everyone got along fine. He had two older and two younger siblings. His parents were trained as medical doctors; his prominent father worked for a military hospital.

Al Samawi’s parents believed in education, but were extremely devout Muslims. So his parents were thrilled when, as an adolescent, he donated all his lunch money to the Muslim Brotherhood when the group (who were pushing pan-Arabism at the time) visited his private, well-funded grammar school.

However, the teachers preached nonstop hatred against Jews and Christians. The Quran was their authority on that. Besides, they said Hitler was a hero for killing Jews, and the Jews’ books were “dirty, amoral, sinful, impure, demonic.”

In 2000, TV propaganda in Yemen claimed that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Israel was ordering the killing of innocent Palestinians, such as a young boy (who became a poster boy to incite Yemen), for no reason. The haters ignited in most Yemenis additional hatred against the Jews and Israel’s backers, such as the United States.

Eight years later, the author thought he was falling in love at university. But his filial piety put the kibosh on that. His mother did a background check on his prospective girlfriend, and found she wasn’t good enough for her son, and given their situations, she was probably a gold digger. His father also pressured him to end the budding relationship, by offering him a car and a job if his parents could fulfill the traditional Muslim route of choosing a bride for him. He caved in to their browbeating.

However, the next chapter in the author’s life proved to be most educational. He met an inspirational British instructor at his English-language school. Surprisingly, the author’s parents were allowing their son to study English. Al Samawi and his teacher exchanged gifts (the Quran and the Bible, respectively) to try to proselytize the other one. Each dogmatically believed that his own religion was the only right one to practice, else they would go to hell upon their deaths. Then a funny thing happened.

The teacher horrified Al Samawi by telling him he’d been hoodwinked– Al Samawi had unknowingly been reading the (Jewish!) Old Testament, having started at the beginning of the book. The stories’ morals and precepts were largely similar to those in the Quran(!)

In the next several years, Al Samawi became sufficiently open-minded to try to clear up his own confusion between what he’d been taught by his parents and Yemen’s culture, and what he was learning on Facebook and from his jobs at cross-cultural peacemaking organizations and international aid organizations.

From the start of Yemen’s religious civil war in 2015, Al Samawi found himself in a life-threatening, harrowing situation for several months. In one particular instance, he wrote, “Thirty minutes later, I jumped in the back of the black sedan. I didn’t call my mom. I didn’t say goodbye. I didn’t pay the hotel.”

Read the book to learn the details of how Al Samawi’s friends in high places went to extraordinary lengths to change his fate, through thrilling plot twists and turns.

The Way Around

The Book of the Week is “The Way Around, Finding My Mother and Myself Among the Yanomami” by David Good, with Daniel Paisner, published in 2015.

The Yanomami is an indigenous, Amazon-rain-forest dwelling tribe in southern Venezuela near Brazil, who developed a reputation for hostility. The author dispelled that myth, while describing his unique experience, as a genetic member of the tribe.

Good’s father, an American from New Jersey, did anthropological fieldwork as a graduate student for about a decade, starting in 1975. Due to the loosely defined concept of marriage in the Yanomami culture, he had to decide whether or not to completely adopt the tribe’s lifestyle in order to continue to study them. He took the plunge. He ended up having three children, including the author, with his Yanomami wife.

However, the tribe’s ways are in an alternate universe, when compared with Americans’. Their lack of clothing alone would be considered primitive, never mind their low-tech, spare existence. The author wrote, “The women were all topless. Their faces were variously decorated with tribal markings; their noses, pierced with hii-hi sticks. The child was completely naked.”

The author’s father thought he would be able to move his immediate family away from his wife’s family in Venezuela in the late 1980’s, as he had a stronger desire to live in the United States. This created a cultural clash that led to a rather extreme consequence and psychological damage for all involved.

Read the book to learn how the author was affected by this adverse turn of events, and how he got through it.

Blood & Ivy – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Blood & Ivy, The 1849 Murder That Scandalized Harvard” by Paul Collins, published in 2018. This true-crime story described the nature of homicide among elitists in American culture, as well as the Ivy League university Harvard, in the mid-1850’s.

The students to be accepted to Harvard’s undergraduate school, to start in autumn of 1849, were required to report for oral examinations in July. Initially, the applicants were ordered to declare basic information on themselves, including their fathers’ professions. The lucky incoming class numbered 87 students, the largest to date.

The students received demerits for failing to attend morning prayers at dawn, in the chapel. The curriculum consisted of Latin, Greek, mathematics, and the history of Rome.

A handful of professors taught at Harvard Medical School, in semesters that lasted six or seven weeks. A Harvard geology professor was suspected of murdering a medical school professor. The former was arrested the day after Thanksgiving of 1849.

The feature of this criminal case that has endured for more than a century and half is the definition of “reasonable doubt”– explained for laypeople (the jury) by the judge.

Read this suspenseful book to learn the details of the case.

The Class

The Book of the Week is “The Class, A Life-Changing Teacher, His World-Changing Kids, and the Most Inventive Classroom in America” by Heather Won Tesoriero, published in 2018. Despite its sensationalist title, this volume provided a fascinating inside look at one program at an elitist school where brainy kids prepared to fiercely compete for big money and prestige on the high-school science-fair circuit.

The cliche of the baking soda/vinegar volcano as a winning project at the science fair ended decades ago. A Greenwich Connecticut school offers a specific course for self-starting kids passionate about science, whose sole purpose is providing resources– experimental equipment, materials and supervising teacher– with which to enter science fairs.

The author related about ten of the kids’ experiences in the form of vignettes– their personally chosen projects and whether they won an award, personal details of their home lives, prom adventures, and college acceptances or rejections, etc., roughly over the course of the 2016-2017 academic year, with backstories.

The supervising teacher of the class, who had previously acquired a couple of decades of scientific experience in private industry, had hand-picked the lucky 48 applicants from different grades who partook of this unique opportunity.

They got access to his guidance and professional scientific devices that even well-funded school districts don’t have. Yet another reason Malcolm Gladwell might brand them “outliers” is that some of the chosen students were younger siblings of ones who had gone before.

 

Most of the science fairs or prizes thereof are funded by corporations and benefactors with big names, such as Google, Intel, Amazon, Xerox, United Technologies, etc.

A great irony is that the event itself is called a science fair when in reality, there were instances mentioned by the author in which the judging of projects was thought to be unfair by the teacher, contestants or their parents. The reasons that certain entries won awards and others did not, were unexplained.

The real reasons would have to be revealed in litigation–probably beyond the scope of this book. It must be said that the author did not mention any litigation.

Nevertheless, since major business entities are running the show, the projects must certainly be seen in terms of their commercial applications, not just in terms of their potential for societal good, like curing diseases or finding new sources of renewable energy.

For instance, one girl’s project that was passed over for an award involved computational biology. The software she coded was, with 80% accuracy, able to identify the most effective breast cancer drugs. Without question, that project had a very valuable commercial application that would open a Pandora’s box.

In another case, a boy who was competing for an “XPRIZE” was advised by his personal attorney to drop out of that contest. He was exceptional for various reasons, much more advanced than his classmates– already attempting to patent his work, and the kind who has the potential to be a future Nobel-prize winner.

At the other end of the spectrum, the author also wrote about kids who weren’t able to get their acts together, due to honest ineptitude. However, the author also related that, in previous years, there had been mean-spirited activity in the lab. In the documented academic year, there was cyberbullying by students and parents even in the science-fair community (!), borne of jealousy and whiny sour grapes expressed by the non-winners. Sadly, as is well known, the parents can be worse than the kids.

Read the book to learn of the triumphs and setbacks, trials and tribulations of the privileged kids and their teacher.

Strong of Heart – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Strong of Heart, Life and Death in the Fire Department of New York” by Thomas Von Essen, published in 2002.

The bulk of the book recounted 9/11 through the author’s eyes. At the time, he was the Fire Commissioner of New York City, overseeing about sixteen thousand firefighters, emergency medical technicians, paramedics and civilians at the then-240 fire stations across the city. The deaths of firefighters on 9/11 numbered 343.

Additional workers passed away due to illness in the months and years following that disastrous day. The author admitted that the men who aided in the recovery effort refused to wear equipment that would have prevented their exposure to toxins at Ground Zero– the location of the tragedy. Goggles, masks, hard hats and respirators were uncomfortable and hindered communication.

The fire department consists of two divisions:  the ladder company, which searches for and rescues victims, and the engine company that operates the hose that puts out the fire.

In 1970, at Ladder Company 42 in the South Bronx, the author began firefighting at 24 years old, but still wasn’t sure he wanted to make that his career. The alarms were nonstop every shift in those days; many fires were made worse by fire-code violations of slumlords, and the proliferation of poorly constructed wooden buildings.

The author soon realized he enjoyed the unpredictable nature of the job, and the ego satisfaction he got from saving lives. He got elected president of his union in 1993. This allowed him to get to know every borough’s firehouse and politician in the city and state.

Read the book to learn of the author’s trials and tribulations in his chosen profession; what he was able to accomplish as an officeholder in the fire department with the help of his ultimate boss and friend, then-mayor Rudy Giuliani; and why firefighters were less than thrilled with the late former mayor Ed Koch in the late 1980’s.

Mistaken Identity – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Mistaken Identity” by Don & Susie Van Ryn and Newell, Colleen & Whitney Cerak, with Mark Tabb, published in 2008. This is a long, true story of a cluster-screw-up of honest ineptitude whose negative consequences were mitigated by the virtuous nature of the people involved.

The families of the victims described in this book weren’t vengeful and didn’t look for someone to blame or sue, pursuant to the tragedy. They were forgiving, and saw the positive consequences of it– they widened their social circle and became a good example for others of civil and mature behavior.

In late April 2006, two female Taylor College students from Michigan who shared an employer happened to be riding home in the same van in Fort Wayne, Indiana. They didn’t know each other. However, their appearance, build and facial features happened to be largely similar. The van was involved in a tragic accident. Along with other passengers, one of them died, and the other lived but had serious injuries.

In the aftermath, the one who lived remarked, “A lot of what was written in different magazines was wrong, and I think it gave me a different perspective on people and the media that I never had before.”

Read this book (not media stories) to get an accurate picture of what happened to the two families of the accident victims.

The Year of the Goat

The Book of the Week is “The Year of the Goat, 40,000 Miles and the Quest for the Perfect Cheese” by Margaret Hathaway, published in 2007. This is an account of a couple’s journey to collect data for deciding whether they could and/or wanted, to become goat farmers to produce goat milk, cheese and/or meat for eating.

The author and her boyfriend were New Yorkers when the story started. They were seriously considering a major lifestyle change, realizing how stressful and unhealthy their lives had become.

The couple started their road trip in August 2003, driving around the United States, visiting goat-related events and places like festivals / auctions / conventions / races, farms and stores; even a college of veterinary medicine. They met hundreds of people in the industry.

Read the book to learn all the details and the results of their efforts– whether they took the plunge.