Piaf

The Book of the Week is “Piaf” by Simone Bertaut, published in 1969.  This is Bertaut’s biography of her sister, Edith Piaf. They shared the same father, and both grew up in Paris in the nineteen teens and twenties, with nary a formal education.

Edith spent her early childhood in a brothel whose occupants acted as  her surrogate mothers, because her biological mother never cared much for her.   However, her father was an artist and street performer, who took her with him as soon as she was old enough to sing so he could earn enough money to survive.  Fortunately, she had incredible natural talent.  Simone also accompanied her father on his rounds after Edith had left him, but she could only do some simple acrobatics.  At fifteen years old, Edith took twelve year old Simone into her employ, and Edith embarked on her quest for fame and fortune as a singer.

The inseparable sisters endured many hardships before Edith achieved fame.  Throughout her life, the strong-willed, bossy Edith fell in and out of love with numerous men, some of whom she made into singing stars.  Read the book to learn about her antics with them, and other aspects of her edgy existence in the fast lane.

Street Without A Name

The Book of the Week is “Street Without a Name” by Kapka Kassabova, published in 2009.  This autobiography describes the brand of Communism the author experienced as a child in 1970’s and 80’s Sofia, Bulgaria, and the Bulgarian historical events that interested her.

It was an unspoken, dirty little secret that the Communist lifestyle was actually inferior to that of the West. The Bulgarian government told the people that “Politburo comrades were heroes of the anti-Fascist resistance” and “the labor camps were for enemies of the people.”

The author’s mother branded Bulgaria’s leader and his cronies “idiots in brown suits.”  The State oversaw all academic, athletic and musical events, such as a contest called the Olympiads, in which grade-school kids competed in different subjects.  At ten years old, Kassabova was convinced that the West consisted of drug addicts, criminals, capitalists and dreadful child labor, based on one story:  Dickens’ “David Copperfield.”

Her parents both worked in the field of engineering, which placed the family in the middle class. Even so, the family lived in a third-class (out of four classes) concrete neighborhood where blocks were numbered. At the furniture store, there was a three or four-month waiting list for shelves and beds, that only afforded one the opportunity to physically fight for the desired items when the delivery truck arrived at the store in the wee hours.

One time, when the author was eleven, her father met someone from the Netherlands through his work, and invited his family to go “camping” with his own, on the outskirts of Sofia.  The Dutch visitors arrived in a recreational vehicle (RV), while the Bulgarian family had brought a hard-to-obtain, shabby military tent.  (As an aside, the cost of the RV equalled about twenty years’ worth of the author’s mother’s income.)  The Dutch were horrified by the disgusting state of the toilets, and the “rubbish and dogs everywhere.”  The Dutch, in addition to their sparkling new vehicle, brought Western goods, including Gummi Bears, chocolate biscuits, juice in little cartons, and one of ten varieties of potato grown in their home country.

The Kassabovas knew their standard of living under Communism was way overrated by their government but they could not leave Bulgaria– until the Berlin Wall fell.  Even then, they had to complete a ton of bureaucratic paperwork and wait years.  During such time, the author’s mother underwent a stay in the hospital, where there were newspapers instead of sheets, and soap and towels had to be provided by patients themselves.  The author’s father paid a large bribe to the head doctor so as to see the patient emerge from the hospital alive; during Bulgaria’s transition to capitalism, there was more corruption than before– which is saying a lot.

Read the book to learn more about the author’s perspective on her life and birth country.

Walking After Midnight

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 Tennis Partner

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.

A Purity of Arms

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.

Safe Harbor, A Murder in Nantucket

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.

Lieutenant Birnbaum

The Book of the Week is “Lieutenant Birnbaum: A Soldier’s Story:  Growing Up Jewish in America, Liberating the D.P. Camps, and a New Home in Jerusalem” by Meyer Birnbaum, published in 1994.  This is the autobiography of a memorable character. He rose quickly through the ranks of the U.S. Army during WWII, though not without trouble.

In one incident, he was court-martialed for practicing his religion.  Religious law dictated that Birnbaum wear a yarmulke all the time, including meal times.  An Army rule prohibited the wearing of a “hat” while eating. Birnbaum’s  attorney was incompetent, so Birnbaum defended himself at his hearing.  He argued that a phrase in the oath he took upon his military induction indicated that his religion was more important than his patriotism:  ” …to serve God and my country …”  He was acquitted.

Read the book for further adventures of this clever military officer.

Over My Head

The Book of the Week is “Over My Head” by Claudia L. Osborn, published in 2000.  This depressing memoir describes what happened to the author, a medical doctor, after she sustained a severe head injury.  She was, without wearing a helmet, bicycling in the Rocky Mountains with a friend when she was hit by a truck. She did not remember the accident.  The damage done to her brain prevented her from resuming her career. Osborn was referred to New York University’s head trauma program to try to recover her ability to live a normal life.  The program features group therapy.  Read the book to learn the kinds of techniques used to help brain-damaged individuals regain cognitive skills, and how the author fared thereafter.

Bonus Post

I am pleased to announce that Noah Gotbaum and I will be appearing as guests on the CUNY TV show, “Edcast,” to be aired on:

Wednesday, March 23, 10am, 3pm and 11pm

Saturday, March 26, 8pm

and Sunday March 27, 10am.

That’s channel 75 on TimeWarner and Cablevision, and channel 77 on RCN in New York City.

You may recall that my book: “The Education and Deconstruction of Mr. Bloomberg, How the Mayor’s Education and Real Estate Development Policies Affected New Yorkers 2002-2009 Inclusive” is available at Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com, among other online stores.

Edcast lasts 30 minutes, but the Mayor’s education reforms have set New York City grade-school students back for decades to come.

There is an easy two-step solution to improving education in this city:

Step 1. Get rid of all of the patronage-hired, pricey “education consultants” that are draining the education budget, and select vendors through competitive bidding. (I mention in my book a mere handful of the countless examples of this exorbitant spending:

Platform Learning, whose fee was a projected $7.6 million for a projected five years, that snowballed into $62 million in three years;

All Kinds of Minds, which fulfilled only 20% of its $10 million contract with the Department of Education;

Cambridge Education, which was paid more than $16 million to measure schools’ usage of data; the personnel commuted from England at this city’s expense;

Accenture was paid $2 million instead of $500,000, which should have gone to the lowest bidder in a nine-company competitive bidding process.)

Step 2. Use the vast quantity of money saved to reduce class sizes, hire experienced teachers, purchase books and supplies, etc.