The Battle for Home

The Book of the Week is “The Battle For Home” by Marwa Al-Sasouni, published in 2016.

In this short ebook, the author– a Syrian female with a doctorate in architecture– describes how the architecture of Syria relates to the recent history and nature of its people, makes various generalizations about architectural concepts, and provides a little autobiographical background.

The author was born and raised in Homs, the third largest city in Syria. She discusses how it evolved differently from other cities. According to the author of this book’s foreword, the current architecture of Dubai reflects “…a bombastic and profligate fun park of petrol-dollar materialism designed on computers in London for the global rich.” Sasouni writes that if a Syrian is Sunni, Homsi, middle class, prosperous and educated– he’s told what to think, and if he conforms, he’ll be set for life.

Read the book to learn more about the “…atmosphere of laziness, dishonest competition and rampant corruption” that has taken hold of the author’s homeland of late, and how she rebelled against it.

Fu-Go

The Book of the Week is “Fu-Go” by Ross Coen, published in 2014. This book describes the precursor to modern-day drones.

During WWII, extensive research in meteorology, materials science, engineering, physics and statistics was required to send the explosives-laden hot-air balloons about 6,000 miles from Japan to America. In 1942, the Japanese began the campaign with the goals of boosting its own national morale and taking a swipe at its enemy; more specifically, to start forest fires in the Western United States, and create terror among American civilians. This would prompt America to divert its war resources to the quell the distraction. Japan lacked the funds to continue this initiative until late 1944.

The parachutes portion was made of paper from blackberry trees, and pasted together by thousands of middle school and high school girls whose education had lapsed due to the war. They performed unhealthy manual labor at a school gym and a factory. Miraculously, with significant improvement in balloon design, a few hundred of the drones landed in Washington state, Idaho, California and Montana in rural areas. There was controversy over whether to warn civilians of the danger, as this might tell the Japanese how well its campaign was working, and reveal the flaws in its system. American authorities met with the Canadian government, and pressured the media into keeping silent for a long time.

Read the book to learn whether Japan achieved its goals with this seemingly minor yet creative plan of attack.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

The Book of the Week is “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking” by Anya Von Bremzen, published in 2013. This volume recounts the food-related details of the lives of the author (born in 1963) and her mother, who, up until 1974, lived in the former Soviet Union before moving to the United States. As can be surmised, they suffered many hardships from successive oppressive regimes that gave rise to hunger.

Under Vladimir Lenin in 1918 Russia, “The very notion of pleasure from flavorful food was reviled as capitalist degeneracy.” Millions died of starvation under Stalin in 1927 when he took over the means of grain production. The author’s grandfather, possessor of exceptional survival skills, was an intelligence officer under Stalin, so Von Bremzen’s family had access to the food of the wealthy. The author’s mother raised her to be a food snob. Stalin’s personal culinary expert Anastas Mikoyan visited America in 1936. “Unlike evil, devious Britain, the US was considered a semi-friendly competitor – though having American relatives could still land you in the gulag.” That attitude had changed by 1952.

The author’s mother celebrated the anniversary of Stalin’s March 1953 death, with a dinner party. She wed in 1958 at a government office and “…moved into her mother-in-law’s communal apartment where eighteen families shared one kitchen.”

The Soviets recycled mayonnaise jars all the time for many purposes, including medical samples; the jar itself was expected to be provided by the patient. When the author and her mother moved to the U.S., “Ahead of us was an era of blithely disposable objects.” Von Bremzen’s culture shock arose while food-shopping not from the dizzying array of products, but from the inability to show off those products to less fortunate people, such as Soviets. All Americans took such cornucopia for granted. She was disgusted that American food appeared to be phony and lowbrow, like Spam. At Christmas, Von Bremzen was grossed out by Oreos: “…charcoal-black cookies filled with something white and synthetic. A charcoal-black cookie! Would anyone eat such a thing?”

Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign ired many Soviets, as “Getting booze for the holidays ranked at the top of everyone’s concerns.” All the Soviet intelligentsia drank excessively. It was unpatriotic to not drink. Everyone had a drinking partner. Proposing toasts and making conversation with the partner was mandatory. Drinking alone was anathema, socially unacceptable.

Read the book to learn more about the Soviet culinary culture and history through the decades, and even see some authentic recipes.

As Luck Would Have It

The Book of the Week is “As Luck Would Have It” by Joshua Piven, published in 2003. This slim volume contains a series of anecdotes on lucky people, whose lives were changed in major ways by good or bad luck. A few generalizations are also provided, on the factors that generated the good luck that allowed lives to be saved in the life-threatening situations– in planes and snow, and led to success in the happy situations– the cases of the lottery winner, hit-song musicians and toy fad identifier. As an aside, this blogger was distracted by the author’s alternating verb tenses between past and present. All the stories are history, and therefore should have been told in the past tense.

Experiences of good luck do not necessarily generate happiness. But the ones that do, meet the human needs of “autonomy, competence, relatedness and self-esteem.” People can better their luck if they are prepared, keep an open mind, keep abreast of information in a given situation, make inquiries to obtain additional information, practice social and professional networking, and trust gut feelings.

Read the book to learn how the above factors were applied in the real-life stories.

The Disappearing Spoon

The Book of the Week is “The Disappearing Spoon” by Sam Kean, published in 2010.

This ebook consists of a series of anecdotes about elements of the periodic table. The author describes fundamental principles of chemistry, particle physics and astronomy; how certain elements were discovered or created, and their identifiers; and the reasons why there might or might not be life on other planets.

One bit of history thrown in, was that, during WWII, the Nazis bartered gold they had stolen– for tungsten (a valuable ingredient in weaponry) from supposedly neutral Portugal. Tungsten is a hard, solid metal that has a very high melting point.

Other elemental trivia include the facts that tantalum and niobium are used in phones for their density, heat-resistance and conductive abilities; the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima contained uranium and the one dropped on Nagasaki contained plutonium. With advances in computer science, Monte Carlo simulations (a mathematics model that computes probabilities) have become used more often than physical experiments in recent decades.

Read the book to learn how it was determined that cadmium was poisoning the rice paddies near the Kamioka mines in Japan just after WWII, how astronauts died in an accident when nitrogen was used in a spacecraft, what “measurement scientists” do, and much more.

High

The Book of the Week is “High” by Brian O’Dea, published in 2006. This book describes the adventures of an international drug-smuggling participant and addict between the 1970’s and the very early 1990’s.

O’Dea was the son of a brewery owner in Newfoundland, Canada. In the mid-1970’s, he and his smuggling partners secreted cocaine “… in false-bottomed suitcases at the factory in Bogota (Colombia) and muled to Kingston (Jamaica) via Lufthansa…” and unloaded the drug at Montego Bay. Other partners “… would be getting strapped up with the product on their thighs and stomachs and backs. Each person would carry between two and four kilos, worth between $100,000 and $200,000.”

Read the book to learn of the author’s Jamaica trials and tribulations with airplane mishaps, romantic subplots, prison and addiction experiences, his role in an elaborate three-continent marijuana distribution concern, and what finally became of him.

Gudao, Lone Islet

The Book of the Week is ” Gudao, Lone Islet– The War Years in Shanghai” by Margaret Blair, published in 2008.

This slim volume tells of the WWII traumas suffered by a little girl in a British/Scottish/Chinese household in the International Settlement section of Shanghai, occupied by the Japanese in 1943.

Born in 1936, the author lived in a neighborhood of expatriates originally from the United Kingdom. Her Scottish father was a detective in the British police. The political entity was not a British colony, but was a protectorate subject to British law.

In 1943, the assets and liabilities of the British sector of the International Settlement was sold via a treaty between Great Britain and China, to the Shanghai Municipal Council (i.e., Chiang Kai Shek’s political party, the Nationalists– (non-Communists, but no less corrupt and power hungry). In this way, the British government knowingly allowed its citizens to stay in harm’s way. The Japanese occupied the area that year, and the author and her family became prisoners of war.

Before and during the war, the Japanese took various martial actions that resulted in atrocities and deaths far greater than would the atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the war’s end. The Axis power militarily occupied Korea, Manchuria, and committed the worst brutalities in Nanking, China. There occurred millions of deaths there (according to this book), while Hiroshima and Nagasaki saw only about 120,000 deaths. Additionally, Japanese prisoner of war camps had higher death rates than camps of other nations in the war. The Japanese never did pay reparations for its war crimes.

Prior to the war, Blair lived an idyllic life of social events and familial closeness in the cosmopolitan Shanghai of the 1930’s. All of that was changed radically by the war. Read the book to learn of the traumas caused by the war at large, and the hardships the author faced on a day-to-day basis.

The Rabbi and the Hitman

The Book of the Week is “The Rabbi and the Hitman” by Arthur J. Magida, published in 2003. This is the true story of a murder that occurred in Cherry Hill (southern) New Jersey in autumn 1994.

What made the case tabloid fodder is that the crime scene’s neighborhood is a posh suburb, the chief suspect was a prominent rabbi in the community, and the victim was his wife– who had standing in her own right as a small business owner.

The Reformed rabbi, Fred Neulander, co-founded the large temple where he conducted services and taught classes. It is typical for rabbis to experience burnout about twenty years into their careers, and the suspect was no exception. However, Neulander’s hubris syndrome led him to behave in ways that made him the world’s biggest hypocrite. Read the book to learn what transpired when his double life was revealed, and whether the mystery of his wife’s murder was solved.

Serling, the Rise and Twilight…

The Book of the Week is “Serling, the Rise and Twilight of Television’s Last Angry Man” by Gordon F. Sander, published in 1992. This is a biography of Rodman Serling, the television writer best known for “The Twilight Zone.”

Serling, born in December 1924, had traumatic experiences as a soldier in WWII. Prior to creating “The Twilight Zone” he penned “Requiem For a Heavyweight,” a drama about a professional boxer aired on the TV show, “Playhouse 90” in October1956. By early 1957, Serling had moved his wife and daughter from Westport, Connecticut to a mansion with a swimming pool in Beverly Hills, California.

Serling was a chain smoker. emotionally troubled for various reasons. One reason was that once the TV industry got its financial sea legs, it began churning out a high volume of lowbrow entertainment. That is why, during his writing career, Serling, an intellectual idea man, switched back and forth between television and movies.

Read the book to learn how. through the decades, Serling coped with radical changes in the profit-making structures and popularity of different genres of television.

Skyway

The Book of the Week is “Skyway” by Bill DeYoung, published in 2013. This volume describes the Sunshine Skyway disaster that occurred in May 1980. The Skyway (whose name has since been changed) is a bridge across Tampa Bay that links Pinellas and Manatee counties in Florida.

A large boat was buffeted about by unexpected stormy weather on the fateful day, and the boat’s pilot was unable to negotiate a safe passage to a shipping lane under the bridge.

Read the book to learn exactly what happened, and whose lives were changed forever by the tragedy.