John Purroy Mitchel

The Book of the Week is “John Purroy Mitchel, The Boy Mayor of New York” by Edwin R. Lewinson, published in 1965.

Previously a young attorney, co-Commissioner of Accounts and President of the Board of Aldermen in New York City, Mitchel was elected Mayor in 1913 on the Fusion Party ticket.  However, he was inept as a politician because both his speech-making and political-machine-building skills were poor. Like Mayor John Lindsay, Mitchel had good intentions, but did not get much done. He was brutally honest and never took action for the purpose of gaining the popularity of his constituents.

Like Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Mitchel’s economic concerns overrode all others, and his administration operated under a veil of secrecy. Mitchel rubbed shoulders with the Rockefellers, and thus acquired a reputation of favoring big-money interests. However, he wanted to keep the then-46 members on the Board of Education, rather than have the power to appoint only 9 members.  If he had such power, those 9 men would be difficult to find, in that they would be “required to give all their time.”  The only people who could afford to, were millionaires, “and they are the very worst type to put in control of the schools.” Further, “The tendency of mayors is to respect the aristocratic voice of the community and to forget the democratic.”

The irony of the Mitchel administration was that, although he was pro-education, he was more interested in saving money than providing New York City’s children with a decent education. The mayor was not a narcissist out to acquire power and appoint his cronies. Nevertheless, the Board of Estimate was a penny-pinching entity, and engaged in petty squabbles over money, with the Board of Education.  Estimate refused to spend money to build much-needed schools. Mitchel wanted Estimate to control the wages of Education’s employees, which included teachers.  Besides, during his entire time in office, Mitchel’s public relations was non-existent with teachers and parents.

In 1914, Mitchel and other city officials visited Gary, Indiana to observe an education experiment, and decided to introduce “The Gary Plan” to New York City’s schools. The Board of Estimate favored the plan because it saved money and saved school-building space. Not surprisingly, teachers and parents opposed the plan. Under the plan, students could opt to start learning a trade in middle school. The schools superintendent published a two-year progress report showing poor performance among students in the two “Gary” schools in New York City.  The plan was abandoned in 1917, after 35 participating schools experienced negative results.

In 1917, Mitchel ran for re-election because he wanted New Yorkers to support the United States in World War I. He accused others of being unpatriotic if they did not support the war. He himself attended a military camp while still in his first term. When he lost the mayoral election to John Hylan, he joined the Air Force, which was at that time part of the U.S. Signal Corps, and was sent to San Diego, then to Louisiana for training. Although he was 38, he wanted to fight in the war.

In July 1918, Mitchel did not have his seatbelt fastened when he died in a solo-flight accident in Louisiana.  More people paid their last respects to him than did people who attended New York’s 4th of July celebrations just a few days before. He was highly praised for his “bravery, patriotism, his integrity and his ability as a public official.”   Mitchel Field, an airfield just finished on Long Island, was so named in his honor.

Stand for the Best

The Book of the Week is “Stand for the Best” by Thomas M. Bloch, published in 2008.  Thomas M. Bloch is the son of the founder of H&R Block (“Block” in the tax-advisor chain is spelled with a “k” so people do not mispronounce the name). Bloch made a career change in mid-life, becoming a teacher.

Bloch taught at a Catholic school, then co-founded a charter school in a low-income area of Kansas City, with a super-rich friend of his. He approves of private money donations to schools, but admits he is an idealist when it comes to closing the racial achievement gap. The school founders experienced a long, frustrating learning curve, although they thought they knew what they were getting into.  They started with middle-school students, but learned that starting with the early grades and adding older students later, would have been a better approach.  For, students’ problems multiply as time goes on.  In an urban area, in addition to a high dropout rate, gangs, drugs, and disruptive behavior, there may be multiple ethnic groups who must get acculturated.

Bloch relates the quote, “Our earth is degenerate in these latter days; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; and the end of the world is evidently approaching.”  This is not just the lament of a modern teacher, but of an Assyrian sufficiently educated to write on a clay tablet, living in 2800 B.C., proving once again, that there is nothing new under the sun.

A Gift of Laughter

The Book of the Week is “A Gift of Laughter” by Allan Sherman published in 1965.  This is the autobiography of song parodist and co-creator of the TV show “I’ve Got a Secret.”

Sherman became most famous for the song, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” which describes the humorous adventures of a kid in summer camp. President John F. Kennedy was heard to be humming his song, “Sarah Jackman” while walking through the lobby of the Plaza Hotel in New York City.  Some of Sherman’s other songs, such as “J.C. Cohen,” “Al ‘N’ Yetta” and “Harvey and Sheila” also captured Jewish stereotypes, but had American appeal.

In the book, Sherman provided bits of trivia on Hollywood of the 1950’s and 1960’s. When he had finally become rich and famous, he bought a house next door to Harpo Marx, with a rubber tree in the yard.  When he was interviewing candidates to hire a secretary, he came across one who deliberately failed a typing test.  She admitted to him she was a member of an “Unemployment Club.”

The goal was to stay jobless for the maximum membership duration, six months, at which time her unemployment benefits ran out, anyway.  She was receiving $55 a week, which was pooled with benefits of eleven other people, who were renting a sprawling ranch house in the Hollywood Hills (that had a swimming pool), and a convertible car.  Members engaged in sunbathing and skinny dipping, and practiced free love.

Sadly, Sherman died at 49 years old of heart disease, possibly due to his admittedly poor diet of Kraft macaroni and “cheese” dinners. He was survived by his college-sweetheart wife, a son and a daughter.

A Smile as Big as the Moon

The Book of the Week is “A Smile as Big as the Moon” by Mike Kersjes, published in 2003.  This book tells the story of a Midwestern special education class that got to go to “space camp” at NASA’s facility in Alabama. Each week, the camp engaged students from several schools nationwide in a competition in which the students played the role of astronauts.

The students in the special education class had various problems such as Tourette’s syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, learning disabilities, etc.  However, their teacher wanted to prove to them and the world that they could function just as well as students in regular classes.  They practiced long and hard for weeks prior to the competition.  The teacher was also coach of the high school’s football team.  He was instrumental in instilling confidence in and encouraging teamwork among the kids.  Read the book to find out what happened.

Everything is Broken

The Book of the Week is “Everything is Broken” by Emma Larkin (an alias), published in 2010.  This book discusses the actions of the oppressive regime of Burma (aka Myanmar) with respect to Cyclone Nargis, which hit on May 2, 2008.

In addition to describing the nation’s violent history, the author also delves into the religious side of Burma, which includes an active monastic community.  Such community ended up on the losing side of an ugly dispute with soldiers in the summer of 2007.  There had also been a famous 1988 student uprising, which resulted in imprisonment of the dissidents.

Well over 100,000 people died in Cyclone Nargis, which did devastating damage to the Irrawaddy Delta.  Many lives could have been saved had the Burmese government– run by military generals and one general in particular– for almost a week, not refused disaster-relief workers entry into the country. The government also barred the media from the affected areas, blockading road and river access.

Human corpses and cattle clogged the waterways.  The one and only newspaper (a propaganda font) distributed in Burma, reported that people were eating fish and frogs they caught in the rivers, because they were not receiving foodstuffs from aid workers.  A famous comedian who publicly contradicted this account was summarily arrested and imprisoned, in accordance with the government’s practice of draconian censorship.

Although Burma has drawn harsh criticism from international civil rights groups, the generals do not care because their land contains precious minerals, teak and most luckily of all, natural gas and oil deposits.  Other countries of the world such as France, the U.S., Thailand and China are still eager to do business with it.

The author writes of the Burmese authorities, “The facts were already bloated with hindsight, overblown by rumor and sound bites from the more sensational elements of the international media and activist groups, and underplayed by the regime’s own meticulously archived propaganda machine.”  People in developed nations might feel this quote depicts their situation on a local level, even given the standard of living and freer political climate in their communities.

Nevertheless, there is a slight difference between this very common tale in third-world countries– oppressive military governments ruthlessly let people die in natural disasters, or persecute citizens at the slightest provocation; developed countries’ governments might impose education reforms that worsen conditions, or violate the civil rights of a particular group of people so that they lose their livelihoods, but violence and murder are extremely rare.

A book like this allows a reader to put things in perspective, and feel grateful that he or she does not live in Burma.

The Merry Baker of Riga

The Book of the Week is “The Merry Baker of Riga” by Boris Zemtzov, published in 2004.  This book described the difficulties of operating a bakery in Riga, Latvia in the 1990’s (just after the fall of Communism).

Latvia used to be a Soviet territory. The half-American author was a businessman and part-owner of said bakery.  Latvian culture was largely to blame for the poor profitability of the capitalist venture, which lasted only a few years.  Language and sanitation were among the myriad problems Zemtzov encountered.

Whenever an employee had a birthday or there was an excuse for a celebratory social gathering (which was often), the consumption of alcohol ensured that nothing got done the whole afternoon.  Alcohol consumption also played a part in a bad experience Zemtzov had with a contractor who was supposed to complete a renovation job in his home.

Nevertheless, Zemtzov described an aspect of Latvian culture that this American blogger found to be quite funny:  on one’s birthday, one is woken up at the crack of dawn by his or her loved ones, is wished a happy birthday, and has a birthday gift shoved in his or her face.

In sum, this was an entertaining tale.

Catfish and Mandala

The Book of the Week is “Catfish and Mandala” by Andrew X. Pham, published in 1999.

This book is the memoir of An, a Vietnamese native whose family fled to California from Vietnam in the spring of 1975, just before Saigon fell. He alternates chapters describing his family’s history, and his bike trip.

An was born in Vietnam, but has mixed Asian blood, so he looks different from everyone. When he returns to Vietnam in his twenties on his bike trip, having been Westernized, he is called the derogatory term, “Viet-kieu.” He flies to, and then cycles through most of the country, to revisit his childhood memories and motherland.

An writes, “… I grew up fighting blacks, whites, and Chicanos… And everybody beat up the Chinaman whether or not he was really an ethnic Chinese. These new Vietnamese kids were easy pickings, small, bookish, passive, and not fluent in English.” So each Asian group segregates itself by nationality in Chinatowns and Japantowns.

An is still grappling with his racial identity. However, writing this book has made it easier, by making others aware of his plight.

God Is My Broker

The Book of the Week is “God Is My Broker” by Brother Ty, with Christopher Buckley and John Tierney.  It is a very funny satire.  The story starts with a man who made sufficient money on “Wall Street” to retire at a young age.  However, a mid-life crisis caused him to try the lifestyle of a Trappist Monk.

While swearing off material possessions at the monastery, “Brother Ty” still had the urge to gamble.  So he let a line of text in a religious tract dictate his course of action in the stock market.   The way Brother Ty interpreted the text turned out to be contrarian to most other traders’ advice and actions, but turned out to be extremely lucrative for him.

The humor of this book emerges when the monastery and the monastery’s abbot are revealed to be just as dishonest as Wall Street.   The monastery raised money through selling wine that was falsely advertised, and the abbot built himself an entertainment center with the ill-gotten gains. Read the book to vicariously experience the hilarity that ensues.

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found

The Book of the Week is “Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found” by Suketu Mehta, published in 2004.

The author is a fiction writer and journalist who grew up in Bombay and Jackson Heights, New York. He discusses in intimate detail, the culture of Bombay (now called Mumbai), a city of 14 million people. Mehta also examines the lives of several Bombayites living in extreme situations, including an organized-crime detective and “mob” members, a strip club dancer and a club patron, a partial transsexual, and a Jain. He graphically depicts the activities of people living in the Bombay slums, and his own reasons for moving back and forth between India and New York.

He writes, “…because your family misses you. It’s the reason I’ve gone back, been pulled back, again and again…What I found in most of my Bombay characters was freedom… Most of them don’t pay taxes, don’t fill out forms. They don’t stay in one place or in one relationship long enough to build up assets… Surviving in a modern country involves dealing with an immense amount of paper.”

Mehta is torn between New York, in a country with modern conveniences (but with paperwork and financial worries) and Bombay, where his family lives (but with the stresses of simple survival– its poor or nonexistent sanitation, and rampant corruption that obstructs the attainment of even basic services, such as water and electricity.)

The extreme contrasts were interesting.